“I learnt to combat and resist the terror that racism gives."
Gail Yarran is a Ballardong and Wadjuk woman living on Noongar country in Western Australia who's just taken out Australia's top nursing award - HESTA's Nurse of the Year.
She speaks to Partyline about closing the gap, her faith, and her resilience in the face of repeated episodes of personal and institutional racism.
Gail Yarran is a fiercely determined woman.
From the time her primary class laughed at her when she said she wanted to be a nurse, Gail has worked tirelessly to overcome prejudice and improve the health of Aboriginal people.
As she’s discovered herself, racism and poor Aboriginal health outcomes exist hand in hand. It’s not only because some have suffered discrimination at the hands of medical professionals.
There's the confusion of trying to navigate a complex system when you might not speak English very well, and you’re hundreds of kilometres away from family, culture and country. Consider members of the Stolen Generations who’ve experienced trauma in white institutions. And it’s little wonder people are unwilling to subject themselves to a barrage of bad health news.
So Gail Yarran works closely with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, advocating for them, protecting them as they make their way through the health system, calling for more Indigenous health workers.
Her colleagues simply refer to her as “The Bridge” for her continuing efforts to weave together the two worlds of mainstream health and Indigenous culture.
Gail Yarran grew up in the tiny country town of Quariding (pronounced QUAIR-ah-DING) about an hour’s drive due east of Perth.
Born at Quairiding Hospital, Gail's birthing story reveals how prominently racism featured in her chosen field of maternal health. While white mothers lay on beds inside shielded from the baking heat, Gail’s mother and her new born were kept outside on the hospital verandah.
One of seven girls, Gail’s family grew up “in a tin shack with no running water or electricity”.
Despite nearly a third of the town being Aboriginal, Gail quickly learned the social pecking order.
On the school bus all the black kids had to sit on the back seat – regardless of how many there were.
Gail said there was a “black seat” in her primary school classrooms as well.
She remembers a pivotal moment in her long journey as a nurse and educator.
“When I was in primary school, I would have been about eight years old, I said that I wanted to be a nurse when I left school. The little country school was full of racism and the wodgella (white) kids, the whole class, just laughed and laughed at me saying, ‘A black girl can’t be a nurse’. I was really broken that day.”
When Gail Yarran talks about how she survived this experience, and many like it, she makes particular mention of her mother’s support and guidance.
“I was very blessed to have a very strong family who was focused on belief in equality for all humanity, support for each other and a mother whose wisdom was gentle. She (said) that bullies were narrow minded, had limited understanding, and were to be pitied rather than feared.”
“My mother saw further than others and encouraged me to stay strong because I was worth it and my culture was too.”
With her mother’s support, Gail found a job at the local hospital serving meals and scrubbing bedpans.
It was there the Matron approached her to train as a nurse.
At first Gail declined, doubting herself, but over time she agreed, and found herself at the Manjumup Training Hospital in the early 1970’s.
It was nearly 20 years later that she enrolled at Curtin University to qualify as a registered nurse.
What came as a shock to Gail is that even in this academic environment, racism followed her from classroom to classroom.
“I had four midwife students as friends, but out of a class of 40 the rest either didn’t care, weren’t inclusive or sometimes were just downright cruel. My wodgella friend and I heard one midwife student say to another, ‘Did you see the car Gail is driving. I bet the government just gave it to her because she’s Indigenous’.”
“These women were meant to be nurturing nurses with a postgrad qualification that honoured and respected all women, but when it came to a classmate their racism shone through,” Gail said.
“We had a really good presentation one day that was the best in the class and a midwifery student challenged our mark, saying that we got the “Indigenous card” because Gail was in the team. She wanted the presentation mark revised. The mark still stood because that presentation was a really high standard.”
Gail Yarran says throughout University she maintained close contacts with her family and community, but also drew strength from her white friends.
“A couple of those wodgella girls wouldn’t stand for the things said about me and together we grew and stood together. Those girls valued my wisdom and we are still really close friends today.”
She advises other Indigenous health workers to identify their supports, and make sure they can talk to those people when they’ve run up against prejudice or closed minds at work.
For Gail Yarran, that includes drawing on her faith.
“I have a deep spiritual faith and I know that my faith kept me strong. Mum used to encourage us that there was a battle we could see and a spiritual battle that we couldn’t. In the spiritual battle I had so many good forces and strength that my family and I could resist the paralysing effects of outward bullying. Our kinship is validating, supportive and strengthening.”
“In this way, with joy, successes, family connections, yarning with others and fellowship and involvement in other communities that were loving, giving, supportive and life giving, I learnt to combat and resist the terror that racism gives.”
There are all sorts of statistics which try to quantify the gap in health outcomes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. One says that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are more than seven times more likely to discharge themselves from hospital against medical advice.
It paints a striking picture of the reluctance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to engage with a mainly white health system.
Gail Yarran says it’s an issue she’s been working on for half a century, but it needs all health workers to engage in improving health outcomes for Indigenous people.
As both a clinician and an elder she is particularly effective as an advocate for better health care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Part of the maternal child health team at the Derbarl Yerrigan Health Service Gail advocates for the client, encourages people who may not otherwise engage with mainstream health care, and says she's always working to build better awareness of Indigenous experiences.
She advocates what she calls “clinical yarning”, teaching non Indigenous health professionals how to make connections and build trust with Aboriginal people.
She says health professionals have to take the time to understand where their clients are coming from, what is their history and culture, in order to provide appropriate care.
Gail has been also been intensively involved in yarning about women’s health, maternal and child health, incontinence and diabetes in a “women’s business” context.
Along the way she has earned the respect of Indigenous and non Indigenous people and health professionals alike, who call on her wisdom to solve issues at a local and state level.
Gail sits on advisory councils at Royal Perth and King Edward Memorial Hospitals, is involved in two research projects at Murdoch University, and is a volunteer Indigenous ambassador for the Heart Foundation.
She has presented at universities, and spoken at international, state and local conferences, always seeking equal opportunity and parity for Indigenous Australians.
The HESTA Nurse of the Year Award is simply the most recent of Gail Yarran’s many accolades.
But while Gail acknowledges changes in attitudes towards Aboriginal people, she still experiences outright racism, and sometimes from unexpected quarters.
Gail Yarran describes an incident when she met a man who she refers to as a “leader in the justice system.”
“I was with my wodgella friend one day when someone shook her hand and (said he) was glad to see her. But when she introduced me, the person wasn’t keen. After I shook his hand he wiped his hand on his trousers. That happened to me because I was black. That was only two years ago.”
“You have to be careful of the crocodile,” Gail said.
“You shouldn’t turn your back on them and you definitely shouldn’t swim with them. In that way I don’t spend too much time immersing myself in negativity or spending time with people who aren’t genuine.”
“There are some nurses and midwives who are even recognised as having a huge contribution to the health industry but they have been racist and hurt me and others.”
“Nowadays I call bullying for what it is and I don’t stay silent. Bullies flourish if you don’t stand up to them.”