The unique training programme helping more Indigenous Australians become paramedics
A paramedic cadet programme in Queensland, Australia, is helping boost Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation in the state's ambulance services, particularly in remote communities. The Torres Strait is a unique environment to work as a paramedic. The region is home to a series of islands scattered over a stretch of ocean spanning 48 000 square kilometres from the tip of Queensland's Cape York, towards Papua New Guinea and over to Indonesia. Most of the staff at the Thursday Island ambulance station, where the area's main hospital is located, are trained to fly on a rescue helicopter. On a busy day, the flight paramedics could be required to do back-to-back jobs across the 18 inhabited islands.
They, along with the helicopters, are on standby 24 hours a day.
It's a life Majella Filewood, who grew up on Thursday Island herself, is working towards. The 43-year-old is enrolled in the Indigenous Paramedic Program (IPP), run by the Queensland Government, designed to boost Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation in the Queensland Ambulance Service.
Filewood, who has both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage, has progressed through the first two hurdles of the course and currently works as a technician on Thursday Island.
The single mother-of-four now just needs to finish her bachelor of paramedical science before she will be fully qualified. "[It's] a great opportunity for me to be in a position where I can give back to community," she said. "I'll be able to go to the outer islands to pick up patients, or go to the ships and be bridged down and help people that are sick on vessels, or do search and rescues throughout the Torres Strait."
Filewood said it was important to her to be able to serve her community. "This is my backyard. I pretty much know everybody we attend to. So offering that initial patient care when we get to a scene, I offer a little bit of reassurance as somebody that can understand their cultural backgrounds, somebody [who] can understand protocols in their time of need," Filewood said.
'It makes so much difference'
Paramedic and Gimuy Walubarra Yidinji man Claine Underwood helped get the IPP off the ground about 10 years ago. "For our own people to be delivering the services, it makes so much difference to the patient," he said. "We're in emergency care and the health journey starts from there. If we can get off on a good foot, building that rapport and trust with people who are a little bit vulnerable, injured or sick, we can start things off good and try to see it through as far as we can."
Underwood said the idea for the cadet programme stemmed from shortages at Yarrabah, a remote community in far-north Queensland where he served as officer in charge for 10 years. "I thought it was important that we advocate to get some local people employed at Yarrabah to fill in that service delivery gap. We used that as a bit of a pilot to see if it would go okay - and it did," he said. "From there, it just spread out. I think at the moment we've got about 43 cadets across the state at about nearly 30 stations. It's really grown."
Mayor of the Torres Shire Council, Vonda Malone, said she hopes to see even more of the community represented in the region's health services soon. "It's important that we have our own people to be able to go into these professions and provide that culturally safe care. It's been great that we've had an uptake of our young people," she said. "I hope there'll be more Magella's able to take on those roles and other roles that are really critical to serving in health."
Underwood, who began his paramedic career as a student Yarrabah in 1995, said the initiative is "creating opportunities that probably wouldn't otherwise be there. In the early days, we were lucky the ambulance service was still doing in-house training. But [it's] since swapped over to university qualifications. So people who want to be paramedics now, they have to do a three-year degree and then apply for a job."
As part of the IPP, trainees are employed from day one, after which they progress up the ranks through both on-the-job and educational training. "We've been able to allow the opportunity for Indigenous people to be employed by the ambulance service first. It allows them to be employed to get the practical experience plus the educational requirements as well," Underwood said.
'Unlike any other job'
Married couple Paul and Vicky Burnett are two of the flight paramedics at the Thursday Island ambulance station. Previously based in Brisbane, they made the move north two years ago. Mr Burnett is the officer in charge at the station and said the job is unlike any other he has worked in. "The helicopter training that we had to undertake is something that is completely new to both of us and completely foreign to what we had experienced previously in our careers," he said.
Ms Burnett has completed jobs on all 18 of the inhabited Torres Strait islands, where the culture and language is distinct across different communities. "I've retrieved patients from all of those places, and I've done quite a few jobs on Cape York as well," she said.
Ms Burnett said she cannot understate the advantages of having locally trained cadets to help while on the job. "It's absolutely important to serving these communities," she said. "For things like language barriers, they really lead the way and show us how to engage with the community. We really value their presence."
Filewood said understanding traditional languages and culture while out in the field is "very important". "Growing up, we obviously did speak the native tongues, [so it's great] being able to sort of break that language barrier. I'm able to break things down for [the patient] so that they understand and are reassured too and I can intervene if there's frustration," she said.
The next step
Underwood, who was one of the first Indigenous officers in charge at a Queensland ambulance station, said he would like to see better representation in senior roles, which at the moment is lacking. "We need to progress [Indigenous paramedics] into management, into officer in charge roles and into education roles. At the moment, we've got a couple of people in those roles but we need more."
And that's certainly a long-term goal for Filewood, who hopes to become the first Indigenous paramedic to head the station at Thursday Island. "To work towards becoming an officer in charge, that would just be the ultimate goal and dream for me," she said. "But Australia-wide, I think it would be great to have more Indigenous representation within the health profession."
Source: SBS News