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Nurse and midwife awarded highest remote health accolade

Alice Springs,Central Australia Health Service Pri
Photo: Remote nurse and midwife Sandra McElligott
Sandra McElligott was sitting outside a health clinic in central Australia when an Aboriginal man asked her where all the “white fella nurses” come from.

“I told him they come from the big cities and they come out here and they do work in Aboriginal communities,” she recalls.

“He said - but they only stay a little while and then they go away, but where do they all go? I told him they go back to the cities.

“They are like little minga - they are like little ants, he said. They just come and they go and we never know where they come from and we never know where they go to.”

The man then turned to Sandra and said, “but not you - you’re still here”.

Originally from Kyogle in New South Wales, where she began her nursing career, Sandra moved to Alice Springs to take up remote nursing and midwifery 25 years ago.
And that’s where she’s stayed.

Sandra was recently recognised for her dedication to remote and isolated health when she was presented with the highest accolade for remote health work, the CRANAplus Aurora Award, at the 33rd annual CRANAplus conference held in Alice Springs.

A women's health educator at Central Australia Health Service's Primary Health Care Outreach West Team, Sandra says her long-term commitment to remote work has enabled her to build relationships with remote Aboriginal communities.

“They appreciate people who hang in there and you will get the benefit out of the job if you hang in there but if you come and go, no - that’s not the way to do remote work,” she says.

Sandra, who previously worked in Sydney and Saudi Arabia, ventured out bush in search of a new challenge, both personally and professionally.

“I rang a friend who I knew worked up here. She told me I’d either love it or I’d hate it. It probably took me about three days to know that I was going to love it and I have loved it.”

In her role, Sandra develops resources and educates the remote health workforce to ensure they develop the skills and knowledge to meet the complex and challenging demands of women living in small remote communities.

With leadership from local Aboriginal communities, Sandra has also helped oversee the development of three DVDs for Indigenous people on the importance of breast cancer screening, why women should breastfeed their babies, and another on the prevention of child sex abuse.

Sandra says she’s incredibly honoured to be recognised with the Aurora Award.

“It’s fantastic and I still don't really believe that I’ve actually received it,” she says.

“But I don’t work alone - I have an incredible bunch of people behind me who make me look good.”

CRANAplus CEO Christopher Cliffe says Sandra is an expert clinician who has also been a constant presence in remote central Australia.

“It means the communities, the doctors, the nurses, the midwives and especially the Aboriginal health practitioners value and respect her.

“She is a very worthy recipient and a true shining light within remote health.”

Sandra says the longer you work remote, the better it gets.

“Your relationships get better and people trust you and they actually come to see you,” she says.

“Just to be able to get paid for driving through this most incredible country and working with first nation’s people is just the be all and end all.

“I’d recommend it to anyone to do it at least once in their life but don’t do it for five minutes - commit to it.”

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Karen Keast

Karen Keast is a freelance health journalist who writes news and feature articles for HealthTimes.

Karen regularly writes for some of Australia’s leading health news websites and magazines.  In a media career spanning 20 years, Karen has worked as a senior journalist in newspapers and television. She has covered the grind of daily news and worked as a politics reporter at countless state and federal elections.

Since venturing into freelance writing five years ago, Karen has found her niche in writing about the health sector for editors, businesses and corporations.

Karen has interviewed the heads of peak health organisations in Australia and overseas, and written hundreds of news and feature articles covering the dedicated work of health professionals who tread the corridors of hospitals and health services, universities, aged care facilities and practices, day in and day out.

Follow Karen Keast on Twitter @stylemywords