Ms Karen Waigana, an Aboriginal Hospital Liaison Officer (AHLO) at FSH, is committed to ensuring that every patient’s journey is a smooth one.
“I’ve been in this role for three years working in a team of five AHLOs who cover the entire hospital from Maternity to Mental Health. It can be stressful at times because we’re often dealing with very sick patients.”
“And there have been some sad moments. It’s difficult seeing people who won’t be able to return home to their loved ones but we do our best to make sure they’re not alone. Death isn’t an easy thing and it’s hard for a patient’s family and loved ones who may be a long way away from Perth.”
“It’s particularly challenging for our regional and remote renal patients who have to adapt to life in the big city with limited support. It’s another country for many of these people. The landscape, the noises, the buildings – they are all different. Even the dirt is a different colour!”
“One of the good things about my job is that I’m there for a patient when things are new and scary. I help them navigate their way around the hospital and try to make sure their stay is as comfortable as possible. It’s nice to see someone smile who’s a little bit scared and feeling all alone.”
Making a difference
Karen tells the story of one patient she always remembers.
“We had a lovely lady from the remote community of Blackstone who was deaf and very shy. The medical staff thought she had language problems but I knew she spoke English just fine and that her hearing was the real problem.”
“She was only in hospital for a small procedure but they found an inoperable cancerous mass and palliative care was the only option. The patient didn’t have much family in Perth but we were able to track down a niece and sister-in-law who came to visit her. They spoke language as well as sign-language, which is quite common in Aboriginal communities. The Community Nurse in Blackstone would bundle the patient’s partner into the ambulance and drive to a spot where they had a phone signal.”
“They’d ‘face-time’ so they could see each other and ‘sign’, which was wonderful because there were times when it could have been saying their final ‘goodbyes’.”
“She recovered enough to move to the closest health service of Kalgoorlie and eventually made the 900km trip to Blackstone to see her family one last time.”
Karen’s background is well suited to the AHLO role both in a personal and professional sense.
Knowledge runs deep
“I’m a proud Torres Strait Islander, my father’s country is the western island of Saibai whereas I was I born and raised in WA on Noongar Whadjuck country in Kwinana.”
“My own professional ‘health’ journey began when I did a Cert II and III business administration traineeship at the Aboriginal Medical Service (AMS) which later became Derbal Yerrigan Health Services.”
“I’m currently upgrading my qualifications in Aboriginal Health and I’ve done a number of different courses, everything from mental health and palliative care to advanced first aid. Of course, having 10 years’ experience in the health sector within my own local community as a Healthy Lifestyle Officer with the Town of Kwinana has been a real plus, too.”
“I also worked with the Rockingham-Kwinana Division of GPs and helped to establish the Moorditj Koort Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre prior to my role at FSH.”
In such a patient-focused role, teamwork is critically important says Karen.
“The AHLO team works well together and with the medical teams, social workers and allied health staff. Everyone here is focused on the patients and that’s the most important thing of all.”
A cultural shift
“One of the good things I’ve noticed is a real shift in younger doctors, interns and nursing staff who genuinely respect Aboriginal people and take the time to listen to what they’re saying. And that’s not always easy in a fast-paced hospital environment.”
“No one really relishes a stay in hospital, says Karen, even with the most compassionate care.
“The only time I’ve been in hospital was to have my two children and I was out the door just as soon as I could. My job as an AHLO has given me a much greater appreciation for the doctors, nurses and volunteers who work so tirelessly in the health field.”
“Nonetheless, I’m not in any rush to return to hospital as a patient anytime soon.”