• Sister Muriel "Canomie" Stanley is the great Aunt of nurse and midwife turned Senior Health Advisor, Leona McGrath (Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council)Source: Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council
Late in life, single mother of three, Kuku Yalandji, Woopaburra woman, Leona McGrath, made a life-transforming decision.
Nancia Guivarra

23 Nov 2016 - 6:59 PM  UPDATED 25 Nov 2016 - 10:04 AM

In 2005, she decided to enrol in a Bachelor of Midwifery course at the University of Technology in Sydney. 

It wasn’t a walk in the park. At the age of 36 with three children she says they were very poor and studying was incredibly hard.

“When I started the course it drove home the disparities in our health to me. I didn’t think one person could make a difference but I do now,” Leona says.

“If we can get our health right with our pregnant women and their babies, it sets them up for life, and we’re one step closer to closing the gap.”

Despite the obstacles, Leona was determined to succeed. Her dream was to look after Aboriginal women in their pregnancy and during childbirth.

She was driven by her own experience as a patient. There were no “blackfellas” there for her at any of her three births. Leona believes seeing more Indigenous staff would have made her more comfortable.

“If we can get our health right with our pregnant women and their babies, just to make sure they’re born healthy, it sets them up for life, and we’re one step closer to closing the gap,” Leona says.

In a surprising twist of fate, Leona was unknowingly walking in the footsteps of her ancestors.

Many years after graduating, she discovered her great Aunt Muriel Canomie Stanley was widely recognised as Australia’s first Aboriginal midwife.

Muriel Stanley was a Woopaburra nurse from Yarrabah in Far North Queensland who dedicated her life and worked tirelessly as an obstetric nurse, midwife and social worker for children since 1942.

Like her great Aunt, Leona’s success as a midwife at the Royal Women’s Hospital has also been recognised by her employer, NSW Health. She’s now a Senior Advisor in NSW Health’s Nursing and Midwifery Office, and her role encompasses the responsibility of increasing the numbers of Indigenous women entering the profession.

NSW Health hopes to amplify the success and experiences that Leona has had working in the department. They’ve recently launched the ‘Good Health Great Jobs Aboriginal Workforce Strategic Framework 2016-2020’, a strategy to increase their Indigenous staff numbers and provide culturally safe working environments.

Through this program, NSW Health hopes to grow the numbers of Indigenous health professionals and build new career pathways, whilst improving the health of Indigenous people in New South Wales.

NSW Health Aboriginal Workforce Manager, Charles Davison says growing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Workforce is key to closing the health gap.

“This is not only a recruitment strategy. We want to be able to support Aboriginal people in our organisation,” he says.

“Give them cultural support, to grow their careers [so they’re] able to give their perspective from an Aboriginal point of view into the health services we provide. We also want to improve the Indigenous cultural understanding of particularly non-Indigenous Managers and indeed all workers in NSW Health.”

Leona believes NSW Health’s nursing and midwifery cadetship program is the most successful to date, training more than 121 students since 2004.

“We’re slowly increasing our workforce and midwifery, with 67 students who have graduated now working with us. They study 40 weeks per year with 12 week work places,” Leona says.

The outcomes should lead to dramatic changes for Aboriginal women in childbirth and pregnancy. Leona says her own family has already been impacted.

“My 15-year-old son is going to university now. He talks about going to Uni, and doing HSC subject selections for an ATAR… selecting subjects for a sports degree,” she says.

“We need more role models in our community. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. The more and more we access and deliver services and feel safe in our working environments means we create a better future for our kids.”

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