• Dr Anne-Maree Nielsen (right) hopes to improve health outcomes for her people. (USQ Photography)Source: USQ Photography
Anne-Maree Nielsen, who achieved a hard-won career in medicine, was among the women honoured during NAIDOC Week.
Ella Archibald-Binge

11 Jul 2018 - 5:15 PM  UPDATED 12 Jul 2018 - 12:33 PM

She dreamt of being a nurse since she was little girl. But when Anne-Maree Nielsen fell pregnant at a young age, that dream seemed unattainable. 

"I thought uni? It's not a reality for me," she said.

However with the support of her mother and other mentors, the Wakka Wakka and Barkindji woman completed a bachelor of nursing degree -  graduating with a grade point average of around 6.5 on a 7-point grading scale.

The mother-of-two worked as clinical nurse in Aboriginal Medical Services in Toowoomba and Dalby for about 10 years then decided to return to university to become a doctor.

"Seeing the doctors come and go, [there was] no continuity of care for our mob," she said.

"A lot of the decisions that were being made were questionable at times. I just thought maybe this is a job that I could do."

Dr Nielsen is now a second-year resident doctor at the Toowoomba Base Hospital. 

"Patients on the ward they call you Dr Anne – sometimes you've still got to do a double take, it still doesn’t seem real for me at the moment," she said. 

Dr Nielsen was one of several women who were honoured this week at a NAIDOC event at the University of Southern Queensland in Ipswich, south of Brisbane. 

The event celebrated 80 years of service by First Nations nurses and midwives. 

Among those in attendance were 1967 referendum campaigners Isabelle Ferguson and Dulcie Flower.

"Nursing I think is a really important profession for us, because I think it’s a continuation of really traditional practices of looking after people," said Odette Best, an associate professor in the school of nursing and midwifery at the University of Southern Queensland.

"We have always nursed our people, we have always looked after our mob - from the aged to the young, to the birthing to the dying. So I think nursing probably lends itself beautifully to an innate skill and history that’s already in us."

Dr Best argues that Indigenous nursing began with May Yarrowick, who qualified as a midwife in 1905 and travelled widely on horseback in her duties throughout regional New South Wales until the 1940s.

"We have Aboriginal and Torres women who’ve been active providers of care for decades and decades, and yet its unknown history, its hidden histories," she says.

"It needs to be acknowledged and recognised and valued for the contribution that it actually is."

The event honoured eight female Indigenous nursing pioneers - many of whom became nurses before they were gained Australian citizenship.

Also among those receiving accolades was activist Gracelyn Smallwood, who - unbeknown to many - took up nursing as a 17-year-old shortly after the 1967 referendum.

"In the 70s in Queensland, it was very difficult for people to change from taking us off the Flora and Fauna Act to citizens, and that mentality has stayed in a lot of the systems – not just health systems," she said.

The Birri Gubba, Kalkadoon and South Sea Islander woman said that nurses in Townsville would make Aboriginal health assistants tie string to their coffee cups so they wouldn't share them.

"I’ve dealt with every disease you can think of, from Hansen’s disease [also known as leprosy] to you name it, and the only disease that I can never come to terms with is the disease of racism," she says.

"So all of the Aboriginal and Islander people that achieved way back then would’ve experienced enormous racism."

Dr Best said the women represent thousands of First Nations nurses and midwives who continue to play a pivotal role in Australian healthcare. 

"We know that Aboriginal nurses and Torres nurses make a difference for our community when that’s the first face that you see in the ward," she said. 

"It’s incredibly important. I know every time I’ve been in hospital and I get an Aboriginal nurse, it makes the world better."