I am an Aboriginal Kuku Yalanjii and Birri Gubba man. My Yalanjii people are from north of Mareeba, near Cairns, and my Birri Gubba connection is in Proserpine, right next to the beautiful Whitsunday Islands. My family grew up in Inala, on the outskirts of Brisbane, where we have lived for over 25 years. I come from a family of eight children. My mother is from Woorabinda and my father is from Proserpine and they are both Aboriginal.
I have always heard about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men having heart attacks at a young age and in higher proportions than non-Indigenous men. I have lost a number of uncles from heart disease, through not eating right, hereditary factors, high alcohol consumption and lack of exercise. In terms of my own health, I thought I was fine because I was always physically active, playing rugby league and touch football and being very involved in the community. I would never have believed it possible that at 34 years of age I could suffer a heart attack. I am sharing this story with other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people around Australia in the hope that it will make some kind of impact on their lives. My story demonstrates how working in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community can have both a positive and a negative impact on yourself, your family and your community.
I started working in the Inala Indigenous Health Service in 2001 as a research assistant and then moved to the role of community health worker. Before this, I’d had no experience in the areas of health or education. The main experience I’d had in community work was as a youth worker with the Queensland Department of Family, Youth and Community Care and as a teacher aide at the Glenala State High School. I’d also had experience as a volunteer coach of a Junior Rugby League side at Inala that has a high proportion of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, parents and families involved. Working in the service gave me valuable experience under the guidance of our Aboriginal doctor Noel Hayman and Aboriginal nurse manager Nola White. Together, they gave me the confidence to undertake a Bachelor of Applied Health Science in Indigenous Primary Health Care at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. It took me 5 years to complete the course, while simultaneously juggling commitments to my family, community and employer.
All I ever wanted to do was give back to the community that I grew up in, and working at the Inala Indigenous Health Service has given me that opportunity. In the 8 years I have worked at the Health Service, I have been involved in all areas of Indigenous health, including hearing health; drugs and alcohol; health status research; mental health; nutrition; counselling; transport; Indigenous leadership; youth issues; youth and adults incarceration; and health promotion. A major role I shared with my mentor Matilda Bani (Indigenous Service Officer with Centrelink) was coordination of the Inala Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Interagency Forum. This forum, which has been going for over 12 years, promotes information-sharing between departments and other agencies working with the Inala Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.
Perhaps one of the biggest achievements in my life (besides having children) was being involved in establishing a Shared Responsibility Agreement (SRA) between my community and the federal government in 2006 (Box 1). The central aim of the SRA was to improve the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men in our community via their engagement in rugby league. Rugby league has been an institution within our community, particularly among Aboriginal and Islander boys and men. For 5 years prior to the SRA, there was no opportunity for men in Inala to play rugby league, due to a lack of activities and sporting programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men, and few Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men were likely to go outside the community to play rugby league. Without football in the community, few men played sport, and this contributed to many problems such as boredom, poor health, low self-esteem, and high intake of drugs and alcohol — all of which can lead to incarceration. Through conversations with the federal government, I developed a proposal to get a group of respected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men to look at ways of getting our brothers involved in sport, employment and healthy living for themselves and their families.
The federal government agreed to fund two open rugby league sides at Inala, on the condition that men in the community participated in health, employment, education and mentoring opportunities within the community. My role as the Community Health Worker was to encourage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men to come to the Inala Indigenous Health Service for adult health assessments, and to participate in other health promotion activities such as the Inala Indigenous Health Calendar (Box 2) and workshops on nutrition and physical activity. The men were also enlisted to participate in mentoring activities, such as coaching, refereeing, volunteering with junior teams, participating in local training and employment initiatives (if they were unemployed), promoting healthy lifestyles, and demonstrating positive behaviour on the sporting field and in the community. Through this process, many local men also participated in training that saw them become qualified referees, coaches and first aid officers.
Since being involved with the SRA in Inala, I have seen some great success stories. Seeing other young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men putting their hand up to be involved in rugby league as coaches, referees, first aid officers and volunteers at the club has really built the self-confidence of men in our community.
During this time, I was so passionate about my work that I forgot who I was. I was doing this as part of my role as Community Health Worker, but was also a volunteer. I was so busy taking care of everyone else that I forgot to take care of myself. I was at the club nearly 7 days a week with the junior and senior teams, feeling constantly stressed, spending a lot of time away from my family, and not taking time out for myself. Because I was always on the go, I was not eating healthily. I just wanted the SRA to succeed and be sustainable, so that Inala Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men could be strong, self-reliant, and able to source other avenues such as sponsorship and fundraising.
I was also a rugby league player at the time, so I was heavily involved in the game, both on and off the field. Rugby league has always been my passion and, although I would go to games to help with strapping and make sure everything was taken care of, I would often jump on the field and play if the team were short of players. It was towards the end of the 2008 season that I put on the jersey for Inala, like so many times before. But during this particular game, I started experiencing dizziness, came off the field and collapsed. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I had just had a heart attack. Fortunately, the coach of the team (one of my closest friends and a participant in a first aid course delivered under the SRA) and the registered first aid officer kept me alive until an ambulance arrived. It was only their quick actions that saved my life. All I remember is drinking a sports drink and then waking up in the ambulance. When I asked the ambulance officer if I had been knocked out on the field, he told me I’d had a cardiac arrest and said that, if it wasn’t for the coach and first aid officer, I wouldn’t be alive.
Since then, I have had three operations on my heart and am now fitted with a defibrillator in my chest in case a similar episode happens again. At 34 years of age, I am very lucky to be alive, and to this day I feel enormous gratitude to the coach and first aid officer to whom I owe my life. There is an irony in the fact that the very thing that caused so much stress in my life was also the very thing that led to my life being saved.
My illness also made a big impact on the Inala Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community in the south of Brisbane. There has been an increase in the number of people attending the Inala Indigenous Health Service, and the number of health checks has doubled. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 35 years and over are now attending the health service. I’m glad that some good has come out of my heart attack, not only for me and my family, but also for the community as a whole. It has changed my life dramatically — I thought I was OK, and then all of a sudden my whole life was turned upside down.
After having all the operations and undergoing mainstream cardiac rehabilitation at a hospital in Brisbane, I started to get my confidence up with doing exercise such as walking and playing tennis and doing things around the house with my family. Back at work a month after having surgery, I am slowly easing my way back into work, eating more healthily, and getting lectures from family and community members about taking it easy in the community. I am doing OK now and just taking life one day at a time. I am grateful to everyone for their support — my family, my work colleagues and my community. There is much good that is happening, and Inala is continuing to grow and develop into a really great community.
After all the operations and cardiac rehabilitation, I decided to get married to my lovely partner of many years. I put the pain behind me to set up a new chapter in the lives of me and my family. At times I don’t think about the heart attack, I just think every day what I can do to get my kids out of the house and do something active. My family is my life, my community is my strength, and my work keeps me active. I share my story with people who are reluctant to go for a heart operation and encourage them to have it done so they will be able to live longer and see their children and grandchildren grow up.
Today I am enrolled in a Master of Philosophy by research at the University of Queensland, while working as a research fellow with the Inala Indigenous Health Service and at the George Institute for International Health in Sydney. This will broaden my role in my line of work and will enhance my capacity to be a good role model and mentor for my community. I feel very passionate about working in Indigenous health, especially in the field of heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes, with the support of the Inala Indigenous Health Service and the George Institute’s Kanyini program.
Rugby league is continuing to thrive in Inala with the keen involvement of other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men in the community. They have been playing the game for 3 years now without any funding assistance from the federal government. They won a grand final in 2007, were runners-up in 2008 (Box 3), and are very actively involved in community events and the junior club.
I am slowly working my way back into the community, having learnt some valuable lessons from this journey — in particular, the need to balance my family commitments, work and volunteering. I have taken a big step back from being involved in the community in a voluntary capacity. Inala is going forward in a very positive way, and members of the next generation are putting up their hand to give back to the community that has supported them.
1 Some of the people involved in our Shared Responsibility Agreement
Left to right: John Brady, Tricia Button (State Manager, Indigenous Coordination Centre), Mal Brough (former Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs), Robert Duncan (Junior Club President).
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