Publish Date

17 March 2022

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JCU medical students Hayley Skinner and Jasper Lawson spent an unforgettable three weeks working for an Indigenous-led health service that is closing the gap in survival rates for dialysis patients in Central Australia and ensuring they can remain on Country.

From a base in Alice Springs, Purple House runs 18 dialysis clinics in remote communities across the NT, SA and WA and two mobile units called The Purple Trucks. It has expanded to provide social support, primary health, aged care and disability services as well as operating a bush medicine social enterprise.

The award-winning organisation's unique model of care centres on family, community and compassion, with a commitment to working 'the right way', both clinical and culturally’. Across 20 years, Purple House has dramatically improved outcomes for dialysis patients in Central Australia.

young man and woman eating kangaroo tail
young man and Aboriginal man
Left: Jasper and Hayley eating kangaroo tail. Right: Jasper with Ned Hargraves, an elder at Yuendumu.

Hayley, from Julatten in Far North Queensland, and Jasper, from Red Head in country New South Wales, were the first Maggie Grant-Wronski Memorial Bursary winners to embark on a placement in the Northern Territory. Through programs like those Ms Grant-Wronski implemented at JCU, medical students learn about the social determinants of health, the non-medical factors that shape health outcomes.

Being allowed into the lives and homes of Purple House patients at Mparntwe (Alice Springs), Watiyawanu (Mt Liebig) and Yuendumu was an honour for the pair, who were given skin names connecting them to the community’s kinship system. Hayley’s skin name is Napanangka and Jasper’s is Jungarrayi.

Purple House Indigenous Engagement Adviser Kelli Tranter described Hayley and Jasper as “genuine, honest people who showed the utmost respect for Aboriginal people and our ancient culture.”

“When I took them on the tour of Alice Springs, including some of the town camps where our patients live, they displayed compassion as well as empathy and asked question after question,” she says. “They really listened to not only the answers but the reasoning behind everything from my point of view, personal lived experience, and cultural knowledge. They both have big hearts. It’s not every day you meet people like Hayley and Jasper.”

Jasper writes about his and Hayley’s time in the NT:

Aboriginal woman painting colourful artwork
man in black hat and Aboriginal woman at waterhole
young man and woman thigh deep in waterhole
Clockwise from left: Selena painting at Purple House in Alice Springs; Sonda shows the way to a swimming hole near Watiyawanu; Hayley and Jasper at the swimming hole. .

In tribute to a health hero

“The Maggie Grant-Wronski Bursary placement is awarded in memory of one of the founders of the medical school at James Cook University. Ms Grant-Wronski not only was a nurse and academic but also became a passionate advocate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“For the first time, the placement began in Alice Springs with Purple House. Hayley and I learnt about the impact of the social determinants of health such as how crowded living conditions and limited access to affordable, nutritious food have led to Aboriginal people having an increasing need for dialysis.

“Purple House CEO Sarah Brown AM told us how a grassroots campaign to deliver dialysis on Country was driven by the sale of Papunya Tula artists’ works to raise funds. This legacy continues, with the Purple House board being comprised of Aboriginal elders from remote communities. Today Purple House operates 18 remote clinics all over Australia as well as two mobile units.

young man cutting Aboriginal man's hair with clippers
Hand holding lizard in foreground with Aboriginal man tending fire in background
Left: Cutting Ned's hair. Right: Jasper hunting for lizards (catch and release) with locals in Yuendumu.

Chance to see the whole picture

“Hayley and I also took part in cultural training, remote driving training and learnt about the bush medicines Purple House distributes to clients and sells in store. In Watiyawanu and Yuendumu, Hayley and I were placed with Purple House’s aged care program, where we cooked, delivered meals, cleaned, did yard work, and even gave haircuts. By delivering meals to elders and people with a disability, we began to understand the significant impact of the social determinants of health.

“Medical students and clinicians alike rarely see patients in their homes; however, this unique placement allowed us to better understand patients and see them as a biopsychosocial whole rather than just a health condition. “After cooking and delivering food, we immersed ourselves in the community, from joining in the daily gospel singing to playing AFL with the kids. We were also privileged to go bush with elders, eat bush tucker, learn language and hear local dreaming stories.

man in black hat looking at sunset
young woman sitting on ground changing tyre
Left: Sunset on top of Watiyawanu (Mt Liebig). Right: Hayley changes a tyre as the students learn offroad driving with Purple House.

COVID underscores health inequity

“Many households in remote communities such as Yuendumu and Watiyawanu accommodate more than 10 people. ABC News recently reported that despite this, many households have only one bathroom, may not have a working refrigerator nor have plumbing issues, which also impacts the health of the individuals.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic has recently spread to communities such as Yuendumu, where we were placed, it has been highlighted that isolation and physical distancing can be impossible if you share a house with 10 to 20 people in 40-degree weather, and often with no air-conditioning due to power cuts. COVID-19 messaging has typically been in English, while for many in Yuendumu and Watiyawanu, Warlpiri and Luritja are first languages with many people speaking English as a fifth language. Language, remoteness, living conditions and other social determinants of health still disproportionately impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Jasper and Sonda at a waterhole near Watiyawanu.

The weight of history

“Australia’s history of colonialism and public policies which included the dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ land, government-sanctioned massacres, the breakdown of families through the Stolen Generations, stolen wages and the consequent loss of culture clearly impact many people today.

“In Australia, policies underpinning the Stolen Generation continued until the 1970s with some of the patients or their families impacted, including across subsequent generation s. During the placement, I was told by some community members that the well-intentioned ‘Intervention’ in the 2000s further negatively impacted the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and continues to play a role today in reducing freedoms and creating a discord between the lives of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Young man holding lizard
young man and woman in front of Purple House banner
Shot from behind of young man and woman walking through rocks with range in background
Clockwise from left: Jasper hunting for lizards at Yuendumu; Hayley and Jasper at Purple House in Alice Springs; exploring the West MacDonnell Ranges.

Hope for a better future

“As a medical student and future doctor, I am obviously unable to singlehandedly ‘close the gap’ and improve the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The social determinants of health can be improved only through a multifactorial and interdisciplinary approach that involves government support and, most importantly, the ownership, backing, and direct participation of communities.

“I aim to have a career that focuses on improving the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, one where I work in a culturally safe and collaborative manner with communities. I hope one day non-Indigenous health professionals will not be needed in communities, with local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders working in their stead in healthier and better-supported communities. Until then, whether the improvement will be small or large and impact many or few, I hope to follow Maggie Grant-Wronski’s example and do what I can as an advocate, student, and clinician. The current situation needs to improve and there is no time to waste.”

Closing the Gap “acknowledges the ongoing strength and resilience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in sustaining the world’s oldest living cultures”. 

James Cook University is committed to building strong and mutually beneficial partnerships that work towards closing the employment, health and education gap for Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Our students come from many backgrounds, promoting a rich cultural and experiential diversity on campus.

We acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Custodians of the Australian lands and waters where our staff and students live, learn and work. We honour the unique cultural and spiritual relationship to the land, waters and seas of First Australian peoples and their continuing and rich contribution to James Cook University (JCU) and Australian society. We also pay respect to ancestors and Elders past, present and future.

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