“It’s fascinating to experience a culture that sees the world differently. I think that really opens your mind.”
Janine Passlow is a registered nurse. She has recently retired, completing 50 years working in various areas of nursing. She became a member of U3APP 2 years ago, after relocating to South Melbourne.
Janine was born in Tasmania, she is one of six children. Her father was a vet, “so we would travel around Tasmania, visiting farms. I was 8 years old when we moved to Melbourne. I grew up in Blackburn, went to a Catholic Primary School, then Sienna College in Camberwell.”
Janine recalls that she had always wanted to be a nurse but does not consider that her father being a vet was a major influence on this choice. “But I certainly learnt a lot, I would help him in the surgery. My mother trained to be a nurse after all six children left home.”
She described an occasion when her father was called to treat a sick elephant in a nearby circus. However, the elephant died, it was very old. Her father knew little about elephants, “the circus people probably knew more, but it was a significant event for us all.”
What was your experience of training to be a nurse, perhaps compared to nowadays? Janine commenced her nursing training at St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne. “We had to live at the hospital for the first two years. There were curfews. But we were just 17 years old, we needed to support each other. We were put straight onto the wards, facing life and death situations. We became very close and to this day we have our 10 year reunions.”
Having completed her training, Janine made the decision to work for a year in Papua New Guinea. A chaplain at St Vincent’s had connections with a particular village in the Highlands and assisted her to go there.
“I was 20 years old, I had my 21st birthday there, we drank altar wine to celebrate! I was young and naïve, but it was an amazing experience. There were just the two of us, fortunately for me, the other nurse was also a midwife.”
This was “fortunate” as the small village was very remote, one of several scattered villages. “People would come in from the hills, from far and wide when they were sick. So mostly we would only get to see people when they were very sick, because they tended to look after themselves. The people were a delight. They in turn would look after us when we travelled.”
Women would give birth without medical assistance, “however if their labour became obstructed, they would come to us, which was always an issue.” Janine explained, “in every village of course there are premature births, they had no access to hospitals, so we developed a way of looking after the babies in a carboard box, with a hot water bottle, that is all we had. Just the two of us were there, we would set the alarm and get up and feed the baby every few hours. Eventually we were able to move them to better facilities, but this took time.”
More generally, they would give advice on nutrition, administer vaccinations, and attend to other health related issues.
What was this experience like for you personally? “Well, it was an eye opener, I was very young and naive. You think you are going to save the world, but no, it’s just like you are just putting a band aid on. I had a deep interest in other cultures, the people were very special. It was a fantastic experience.”
Following her return from New Guinea, Janine completed a course in midwifery, “it was such a deficit in my experience in New Guinea.”
Later on, during the 70’s, Janine held Childbirth Education classes at her home. She was married with children to care for and obtained employment with a childbirth education group at that time. Pregnant mothers and their partners would be able to attend in the evening after work. “We would hold a six week course, this was very new approach at that time, it was very enjoyable.”
The family, with their 4 children then moved to live in Traralgon. Janine commenced work in a regional hospital, where she was required to work in medical, surgical, oncology, paediatrics, also the emergency department. “If it was busy somewhere, you just went and helped. If the oncology nurse was going on leave, you would replace them. So, I had a lot of generalist experience in different areas, which gave me much needed background knowledge, for remote area nursing.” They returned to Melbourne 20 years later, the children were adults, and Janine felt it was time to consider doing remote area nursing.
What motivated you to work in remote areas? “Well, I was interested in Indigenous culture. Our travels through Australia led me to develop an appreciation of their rich and deep and culture. I just felt this was for me.”
Janine completed a remote area nursing course in Alice Springs. “We learnt more about health screening, suturing, plastering, chronic diseases and also emergency work. It was excellent to learn those skills.”
Initially Janine worked for one month in Derby, Western Australia, where there was support from the regional hospital. “So, I learnt how to become more aware of the local culture, to get the feel of how to communicate with the Indigenous community.”
Over the next few years, Janine spent short term periods, nursing in various outreach communities.
In 2007 Janine commenced working with an Aboriginal health service in the north west of South Australia, part of the Anangu Pitjantjara Yankunytjara lands, known also as APY lands. The APY lands connect with the Western Australia, Northern Territory and South Australian borders. “These were the communities affected by the Maralinga nuclear testing site in the late ‘50’s.”
Over the next 10 years, Janine worked 8 week periods in a remote health service, a 1 hour flight on a mail plane from Alice Springs. She did this 3 or 4 times a year, providing relief to the permanent nurses when they were on leave. “So, I went to all the six communities in the APY lands, managed by the regional health services. We relied on the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) to evacuate sick people … sometimes the wait was long.”
What were some of the major health issues there? “Well, the problems I encountered in these areas were very different. A lot of the health problems are related to poor socioeconomic conditions, overcrowded housing. No water for proper hygiene, washing clothes, so many skin conditions, ear infections. Many kids had lost their hearing, affecting their education. The Aboriginal view of health, is quite different from our own.”
Can you talk a bit about that? “Well, say for me and for most people I know, if you have a health problem, it’s important to go to a doctor, specialist etc. In the Indigenous community, this is down the list, it is not a high priority, depending what’s going on in the family or community.”
Janine explains further, “for instance, young men would not come to the clinic unless they were extremely ill, we always had a male nurse available. Also, when the health service first started up, there were some who feared white people, feared being given tablets, that they might be poisoned for instance. They were very suspicious, taking medication was very difficult for them”.
“We worked closely with the Ngangkari (traditional healers). These special Elders helped us a lot, especially in stressful situations”.
“With diabetes, you may not feel unwell, but it is doing damage to your heart and kidneys. If you don’t feel unwell, why keep taking tablets? You may not feel you have high blood pressure, so why take tablets? A slow, gentle approach was the most effective.”
Did the health services obtain some good outcomes over the years? “I think so. Our vaccination programme was a very high priority for many mothers. The vaccination rate was higher there, than it would be in Melbourne.”
Janine explains that “when the Rotavirus vaccine was introduced, babies stopped dying from ‘gastro’. With the pneumococcal vaccine less children died from pneumonia, they could see for themselves, that these vaccines worked.”
On a slightly different perspective, what did you learn about their culture? “Communication, and other benefits they obtained from their culture. For instance, someone you may know, but who is very shy may want to come to the clinic. They may pace up and down outside, then they might come inside and sit on a bench at the back of the clinic. So, you would go and sit beside them and wait. You might have a yarn about something else. Eventually they would tell you why they came to the clinic and what their problem was. It taught me to be patient and not to ask lots of questions.”
Did the health profile of the communities lift over the 10 years? “Yes, slowly. It is a dry community. Family violence was a problem. The young men had no employment, not much purpose, they were bored, some have mental health issues.”
Janine explained that sometimes women would approach them for protection. They would keep them in the clinic, but it may take a few hours for the police to arrive. She witnessed some very challenging incidents.
What aspects of their connection to country impressed you? “I used to go out bush together with the elders. It was so special. We would be driving down the road, as we passed beautiful rock formations, they would start singing to their ancestors, letting them know we were coming and that they had visitors coming through their land. They would tell me stories about the rock formations.”
“One time, they went out bush, they cooked up the kangaroo tail purchased from the store, made damper and billy tea. After, I started to clean up but was told not to. The elder explained, ‘this is where we‘ve met today. So, it is important to remember this outing.’ This is a different way of thinking.”
Janine referred to a number of frustrating issues relating to some very ill people in the community, also on-call work at night, which led her to finally complete her 10 years of work in remote community settings.
On reflection, what do you think may improve these difficult situations? “Well, I am very much pro an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. The local people in these communities have very good ideas. When a new policy comes in, it is made by bureaucrats in Canberra. They are told, this is where your money will be spent, for your own good.”
Janine has observed that this is frustrating for the community, as they know what does and does not work for them. As an example, “the government spent millions of dollars on an alcohol rehab centre, in one of the communities.”
“The people knew it would not work as no one local, will go to a rehab centre in their own community. Too much shame. It was built, politicians arrived to open it, but it was never used for that purpose. In the end they turned it into a TAFE.”
What suggestions did the local community make? “Well, they were pretty keen on getting the youth occupied, to give them a focus, activities. A place where they could meet, play music and dance. They needed funding for that. More housing was needed, also a maintenance program.”
“Also, they look after their old people very well. They had a kitchen, would cook meals, and take them to the old people in the community. Their family, also the younger generation, grandchildren would be very supportive, they would look after them if they were dying, it was impressive. They had great skills looking after a family with mental health issues.”
What about language? “Language is very strong, the older people mostly spoke language (Pitjantjatjara). Children spoke language until they went to school, where they were also taught language, their culture was very strong.”
Campaigning for the Voice
I understand that you are involved in campaigning for the Voice to Parliament. Janine is a member of Port Phillip Citizens for Reconciliation. “This is a fantastic group of people, we are very busy at the moment. I am handing out leaflets, the reception has been mostly positive. Others are door knocking, making phone calls. The membership is mostly not Indigenous, “there are some, we have an Elder, our inspiring Auntie Jacko (Judith Jackson).”
Having completed 10 years working intermittently in AYP lands, Janine intended to retire, however “Covid came along,” so she administered vaccinations, “doing 100’s a day at the Convention Centre and Royal Melbourne Hospital.”
Janine described how they had to “put up with protesters. We were advised not to wear our scrubs home on public transport because we might get abused. People standing in the queues were also abused by protesters.”
Janine finally retired and joined U3APP. She is enjoying the various classes she attends. The First Nations Authors Reading Group, with Sue Taffe. “I am learning things that I did not have the time to learn when I was working and am increasing my knowledge.” She does a number of other classes including folk dancing with Hoppa Hey and Memory for Fun.
Janine has recently joined Southport Day Links, where she assists with gardening.
Janine and her husband are volunteers, for Tasmania National Parks.
”Each summer, Parks put two additional caretakers into their national parks as they do not have enough staff. We may go for a month, or 8 weeks and stay in beautiful places, as well as looking after the parks, we have done this for the past 6 years. We ‘meet and greet’, provide information, pick up rubbish, occasionally clean toilets. ”
“Elsewhere in Tassie, we also love weeding and clearing land for the shorebirds.”
Janine and her husband also like bush walking, kayaking, and cycling. Their next trip is to East Timor. One of their children lives in Canberra, others more locally. They have 7 grandchildren.
What do you feel you have gained personally from your extensive experience with our Indigenous communities, also Papua New Guinea? “It’s fascinating to experience a culture that sees the world differently. I think that really opens your mind.
“The Indigenous connection to the land, when out bush walking, I think it alters the way I look at nature now. I am awestruck when in a place where there are middens or fish farms that date back 1,000’s of years.”
Are you hopeful that the referendum for the Voice, will have a majority ‘YES’ vote? “Yes, I am very hopeful.”
Janine has an immeasurable depth of ‘hands on’ experience working in remote areas of Australia with our Indigenous communities. She has been enriched by this experience, whilst providing invaluable medical care, to those in need.
Janine’s experience is yet another example of the diversity of U3APP members, some of whom we know so little about.
Felicity May interviewed Janine Passlow.