Eileen Van Iersel

Senior Project Manager Eileen Van Iersel shares her Fellowship experiences to mark NAIDOC Week 2018

Eileen Van Iersel

What was your Fellowship focus, and what inspired you to apply? 

My Fellowship focus was to compare how other Indigenous peoples from other parts of the world access culturally appropriate health care services. When I applied I was working at the Alice Springs Hospital as Manager of Aboriginal Support Services. At the time, my team and I were assisting various research projects around indigenous health issues, so I thought, why not do some of my own research (rather than non-indigenous professionals and academics doing the research about us).

I chose to focus on the impact that communication and cultural barriers were having on Aboriginal people being able to access culturally safe health care. As an Aboriginal woman from Central Australia I have seen first-hand the social determinants and inequalities that aboriginal people in regional and remote environments are faced with. When my people fall ill and enter the health care system they are faced with an environment that is not familiar to them. Many of the staff were overseas trained or coming from large cities where they didn’t have a lot of experience working with Aboriginal people who are rich in culture and languages and span a vast geographical region. Communication was an ongoing issue.

Were there any stand out personal moments during your Fellowship? 

As I hadn’t travelled without my family before, when I was preparing to leave New Zealand it dawned on me that I was going even further abroad I started to become emotional and I remember sitting in a cafe crying my eyes out to family and friends. I was telling them I wanted to come home and forget the Fellowship. During my travel I became a little more settled and thought I was real deadly, navigating the huge airports like a seasoned traveller.

I met some amazing and inspirational people along the way. One of the boarding houses I stayed at in Boston Massachusetts was on the edge of the Harvard University. Most nights I would walk through the uni grounds taking in the amazing architecture of the old buildings.

My hosts at the boarding house were retired teachers and would often invite me to various shows at the Harvard university, often telling me which famous movie star started their acting there.

What challenges did you encounter on your Fellowship?

There were very few challenges due to being properly prepared and ensuring my overseas hosts were aware of my study so were able to provide me with work schedules and staff to shadow on my visits.

Meeting with the people of the first nations in Canada was a little confronting because of the similarities between them and us Australian Aboriginal people. I was overwhelmed to see that they too are impacted on by poverty, homelessness, education, health racism and high incarceration rates.

What were you able to bring back to Australia? 

The Churchill Fellowship was very useful, being able to learn from other cultures throughout my journey made me realise that minority populations are similar regarding some cultural practices and beliefs, language barriers and access to appropriate health care services.

I returned to Australia with a renewed focus and energy to contribute to change in the healthcare system and developed a Cultural Safety Committee at the hospital where policies and practices were reviewed, and appropriate communication strategies implemented.

I went on to develop visual tools for people that speak English as a second or third language, and become an on-line facilitator for the Australasian College of Surgeons pilot cross-cultural communications program for overseas trained Doctors intending to practice in Australia.

I also assisted and co-authored medical research into reasons Aboriginal people are a high percentage of ‘Taking Own Leave’ from hospital prior to medical treatment being completed. Taking Own Leave is when patients don’t communicate with anyone when leaving the

Hospital, which is different from leave against medical advice. Through developing a cultural safety care model, we were able to measure the number of Aboriginal people that understood their rights by the implementation of video messages in various aboriginal

languages. Another measurable outcome was through ensuring we had cultural brokers available to assist patients when communicating in their own languages.

In the last ten years since you went on your Fellowship has your focus changed?  

Over the past ten years my Fellowship experiences and findings into communication and culture have continued to influence my work in various positions in health, housing and justice and as a volunteer Board member on various Aboriginal Organisations. I worked for public housing where Aboriginal people didn’t have access to appropriate housing and where communication and cultural beliefs were also a barrier. Later I took on the role of CEO of an Aboriginal legal service where I was able to use my experience from overseas ensuring aboriginal people entering the justice system are fully aware of their rights through appropriate communication strategies.

I am now employed in a short-term contract as senior project officer with SNAICC National Voice for our Indigenous Children on developing an Aboriginal-led and managed Out of Home Care Service project. I hope to return to the health sector when this project is completed.

Even after spending six years out of the Aboriginal health sector I am still focused on this area. I am planning to return to it as I believe that I can now add better value through consolidating what I knew then and what I know now. The theory, practical and varied work experience have allowed me to grow as a person.

I think that returning to the health service will also allow me to evaluate changes since I switched careers. There have been new initiatives and reform from the government in regard to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and I believe that my Fellowship learnings are better placed within the health sector to contribute to system changes and ensure Aboriginal people have access to a culturally safe health care experience.  

This year’s NAIDOC theme ‘Because of her, we can!’ celebrates the essential role that women have played – and continue to play – as active and significant role models in the community. What would you most like to celebrate?

As an Aboriginal woman I have been inspired by strong females in my life. Particularly my Nana and I would like to celebrate this year’s theme by telling stories about her which I have planned to do with the local Aboriginal radio station as part of an initiative they are doing for NAIDOC week.

There is always a strong female leader in every family and I am happy I took the time to listen to her stories growing up so that I can share these with my children and so on. My family now see me as their strong female and are also inspired by what I have achieved. I just hope that by being a role model, this will have a positive impact on future generations.

We need to continue on the path for reconciliation so that our future generations don’t experience the struggle that our past and present generations have, and to work and live as one. It is up to us to teach our young. The theme of NAIDOC is truly fitting as we need to reflect on our past strong women leaders and be inspired by them, so we can all move forward.

Do you have any suggestions for other Indigenous women who might be considering applying for a Churchill Fellowship?

I can’t stress enough how important it is for more indigenous people to apply for a Fellowship. We need to own our learnings instead of professionals and academics learning from us. The reason I applied was because all too often non-indigenous people research topics that may benefit them when working for us. Take ownership and learn from other countries to bring back and implement these learning’s where it makes a difference. Talking about your Fellowship, whether it be in your workplace or socially will allow you to reflect on your journey and what a difference you have made, big or small. It matters.

More about Eileen Van Iersil

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