Nature and healing nurtured at Aboriginal gathering spaces

At just six years old, Durakai was airlifted to Sydney and placed into an induced coma after a dirt bike accident in his hometown of Dubbo. 

Durakai spent almost three months at The Children's Hospital at Westmead (CHW), recovering from a brain injury, ligament damage and multiple broken bones – including his arms and legs. He had to learn to walk and talk again. 

Reflecting on the day of Durakai’s accident, in August 2020, his mum Brinae said it was "an absolute blur" because the family didn't yet know the extent of his injuries. 

"I cried to my grandmother, who is in the Dreamtime; I said, ‘I need a sign...is he ok? Is he with you?’ I just broke down, wanting her guidance. It wasn't until a few months later that I realised where I collapsed was the Aboriginal garden". 

(Having community gathering spaces) would be extremely beneficial, even just to know that there are other Aboriginal families there that you can reach out to...you don’t want to be alone," said Brinae.

The Sydney Children's Hospitals Network (SCHN) redevelopment team has been working with Aboriginal patients, families and staff to boost access to culturally safe spaces in and around the new hospital buildings - to improve health outcomes in the Aboriginal community. 

The local Aboriginal community has contributed to early planning and design work on Aboriginal gathering spaces at the front of the new buildings at The Children's Hospital at Westmead (CHW) and the Sydney Children's Hospital, Randwick. 

The front-of-house spaces will feature a family meeting area, kitchenette and office for an Aboriginal health worker. The consultation also raised the importance of linking these spaces with external areas. As a result, both redevelopments will include an external landscaped area with native plants and communal seating as part of the gathering space. 

Aboriginal Health Outcomes and Equity Manager, Natasha Larter, said when the new hospital buildings are complete in 2025, she hopes patients and families can use the gathering areas to practice culture within a familiar and safe environment.  

These spaces allow patients and families to connect to country, whether it’s spending time in the gardens, conducting smoking ceremonies, spiritual healing or sharing their stories," said Natasha Larter. 

"Being surrounded by a culturally safe space allows the process of healing from often very difficult situations, traumatic news or even loss of life." 

Aboriginal children and young people continue to face significant health inequalities compared to the mainstream community. Over the past five years, patient data shows that Aboriginal people are at greater risk of poor medical outcomes, including low birth weight, infant mortality, child hospitalisation, chronic disease and lower life expectancy. Families also experience greater levels of disadvantage and often travel further for medical care. 

The SCHN is committed to an Aboriginal Health Strategic Plan  that works towards improving these outcomes by addressing obstacles faced in accessing and receiving health care in NSW. Aboriginal Population Health Trainee Officer Seaneen Wallace said it's hoped the meeting rooms will help break down some of those barriers and make families feel welcome at the hospitals. 

"What we want to stop is Aboriginal people leaving before they have been seen or discharged against medical advice," said Ms Wallace. 

"We know Aboriginal families leave at higher rates than non-Indigenous families, and they often re-present within 24 hours with the same condition."  

If we offer families an accessible service from within, they can be triaged and treated instead of returning later with a more severe condition,” said Seaneen Wallace.  

The redevelopment team is committed to working collaboratively with the community to incorporate Aboriginal culture and perspectives to ensure the redevelopments are inclusive, welcoming, culturally safe and responsive for all Aboriginal peoples and communities. 

Contact the SCHN redevelopment team to learn more or become involved in future engagement: schn-redev@health.nsw.gov.au