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Dhunning - Indigenous Impact

Navigating the intersection of healthcare and social justice

For ҹAV Bachelor of Nursing graduate Chrystale Langford, healthcare advocacy is personal.

She is a mother of seven, including triplets. Six of her children are neurodiverse and Chrystale herself has also been diagnosed as neurodivergent.

“One of my triplets is intellectually disabled, has had at least one paediatric stroke and got an acquired brain injury in a childcare setting due to the centre lacking the correct supports for children with disabilities,” Chrystale says.

“It was a battle to get the right health care treatment for my daughter and it took me nine months to get her in for an MRI.

“When we finally got that done, it showed that she had suffered so much intracranial pressure that the swelling had caused all kinds of damage inside her brain.”

The experience left Chrystale determined to look at how parents’ and carers’ voices can be amplified in a healthcare setting, particularly when it comes to patients with disabilities and those with an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage.

Chrystale is a Wiradjuri woman, who spent her early years in Victoria, before moving to Canberra as a teenager. She was exposed to social justice advocacy through her father, who worked to keep Indigenous children off the streets, and her nan, who was a respected Wiradjuri elder of the Koori Court at Broadmeadows Magistrates’ Court.

“I didn't do well at school at all, so I went and did my own thing, jumping in and out of different health-related careers,” she says.

“I did my diploma in pharmacology, worked in pharmacy, worked in aged care, in nursing homes, and I have a diploma in disability as well.”

It was when she battled to get an MRI for her daughter that she went down a different path.

“It shouldn't be such a hard fight for parents and carers to get basic treatment for their children and to be heard. I thought, ‘what can I do?’ – I already work in disability, already advocate, already sit on panels, trying to educate people,” she says.

“Then I thought I might become a nurse and see what changes I can make.”

Converting thought into action, Chrystale entered into UC’s Bachelor of Nursing course via the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Foundation Program, while continuing in her role advising government organisations and the private sector on working with people living with disabilities, and advocating for healthcare consumers on various panels.

She navigated her way through essays, assignments and clinical placements alongside the challenges of living with a disability, her own caring responsibilities and the differences her cultural heritage brought to her approach to learning.

“I wrote a lot of my essays as storytelling because that’s how I was raised with my mob in Victoria,” Crystale says.

“I learned to do storytelling and learned how to do things hands on, like hunting and basket weaving, so writing as a university student was very different.

“I could see that my nursing teachers were trying to meet me halfway with my approach to essay writing. They showed an understanding that everybody's uniquely different.”

Chrystale had six of her seven children living at home when she started her degree, and she had to homeschool while studying during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She accessed support through InclusionUC, where they developed a Reasonable Adjustment Plan (RAP) to ease the pressure of meeting uni deadlines while juggling caring responsibilities and the healthcare needs of herself and her children, but the pandemic meant she had to reduce her study time and complete her degree over five years.

“I would set an alarm for 3am, because often that was the only time I could get any uni work done,” Chrystale says.

“During the day, I would go back to my roots to deliver homeschooling to my kids, rather than following the education system.

“Between my online meetings we would all go out for a walk, and I would teach them about ecosystems and the foods we could eat through foraging and fishing, and how to clear drinking water from ponds and other waterways.”

Chrystale graduated with a Bachelor of Nursing in March this year, and her connection to UC remains strong after taking up a role with the Faculty of Health.

“I help with the yarning circles to educate students doing health-related degrees about how hard it is being a First Nations person accessing healthcare, to hopefully improve their understanding and encourage them to be culturally respectful to First Nations people, as well as to those with disabilities,” she says.

“I also sit on committees for the ACT Health Directorate as a consumer advocate, to help rebuild policies and develop new ones for the healthcare system, and for child and youth protection services.”

Chrystale has also been offered a job as a palliative care nurse, a role she will consider taking up in the second half of the year.

“I would love to work in palliative care, as I had a really positive experience during one of my clinical placements. While I'm sitting in offices, talking to people and trying to educate, it's always nice to go back to the floor and have one person that I'm focusing on and caring for and connecting with them and their families,” she says.

“Either way, getting my degree in nursing and learning about nurses’ responsibilities and their scope of practice has allowed me to incorporate this knowledge with my work as a consumer advocate and impart my wisdom to health professionals.”

But Chrystale felt as though there was a piece of the puzzle missing, leading her to pursue postgraduate studies at UC.

“I’ve started my , which is part of the Juris Doctor, as I want to strengthen my knowledge around the rights of the consumer in healthcare settings and have the ability to be a stronger advocate when something is in breach of standards,” she says.

“Dr Holly Northam has been mentoring me and she is someone whom I’ve worked closely with as part of the Canberra Restorative Community, to build more restorative practices in healthcare.”

Chrystale’s work in the Canberra community hasn’t gone unnoticed.  She has been nominated for a string of awards – including as a finalist in the ACT Chief Minister’s Inclusion Awards 2022 – and was named ACT NAIDOC Elder of the Year 2023.

“It’s wonderful to be recognised, but for me, the awards come home and then I continue my advocacy. I don’t do this for the accolades, I do it because it’s the right thing to do,” she says.

“I’ve heard from parents who are part of First Nations groups who are willing to drive several hours to have me as a nurse for their child because they trust me – and that means so much more to me than any award.”

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