Dr Kim O’Donnell’s public health message: ‘if they get it right for blakfullas, they’ll get it right for all fullas’

Dr Kim O'Donnell

Jeremy Lasek – PHAA

In recent weeks, we’ve loved blogging and sharing the rich and diverse stories of a number of our passionate and dedicated public health professionals.

A quick shout out to those who’ve put up their hand so far, and, to everyone else, please don’t be shy. 

Your stories all form an important part of our nation’s strong, multi-faceted public health fabric which helps keep our nation safe and as healthy as is humanly possible, even as we emerge from this one in 100-year pandemic.

As you read this compelling story you’ll realise there is a book in the offing ‘because there are so many hidden stories that need to be told’.

Kim O’Donnell’s story

Dr O’Donnell was Highly Commended in the 2021 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Public Health Award category. A proud Barkindiji and Malyangapa woman from far western NSW, Kim has worked in public health for more than two decades. She first qualified as a primary school teacher, and then worked part-time as a flight attendant before returning to university for a second time.

Kim says she was influenced by her closest friends who were teachers and nurses.

“I guess you could say public health chose me, and my supporters and friends help keep me there,” she says.

Her nominators for the PHAA award said Kim was “a committed life-long learner, willing to listen to those with different experiences and points of view, particularly making space for younger Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”

Kim completed her Doctorate of Public Health in 2015, as one of the early Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health scholarship recipients.

Her thesis explored the funding relationships between staff in Aboriginal community-controlled health organisations and in government, focusing on understanding their accountability to each other, and the extent to which funding contracts form the basis for partnerships.

Her work contributed to recognition by the Australian Government of the need to stabilise funding for ACCHOs, including during the turbulent period that commenced in 2013 with the election of the Abbott government.

Building networks

Her nominees also said Kim is “well known for her investment in relationship networks and her work to address the many forms of injustice and inequity experienced by people. Using the lens of public health…Kim reminds us that relational networks are part of how First Nations people have survived and thrived for millennia.”

This commitment to building strong networks has resulted in a five-year NHMRC project, Aboriginal Kidney Care Together Improving Outcomes Now – AKction2. This brings together over 70 individuals and at least 40 organisations to collaboratively address inequity in Aboriginal kidney health in South Australia.

Kim responded to our questions via email.

What part of your work gives you the greatest satisfaction?

Health services and policy research that shines the spotlight on power and control, the institutional structures we work within, the complexity of the health care system, and research that’s not afraid to call out systemic racism, speaking truth to our shared Blak Australian history and identity as a nation, and the deep collaboration required for change.

I feel so proud, when other, particularly younger, First Nations people step into and thrive in the research space. When they are provided an opportunity to be themselves. When their knowledge and lived experiences are valued. When we can walk wirkara way (alongside) and learn from each other.

Aboriginal kidney care together- improving outcomes now project (AKction2), is such a project. This is my first NHMRC research project as Chief Investigator and Lead, with colleague and long- time study-buddy Dr Janet Kelly. AKction2 extends and centres the role of Aboriginal patients, and community members from advisory to leadership and Indigenous governance, with active involvement in key decision making within research and health care redesign. Together, we work as allies and partners to co-design innovative and responsive models of kidney care within and across health and support services in South Australia.

AKtion logo - Aboriginal Kidney Care together improving outcomes now.

How has COVID impacted your life and your work?

COVID impacted my life and work in numerous ways. In January 2020 my son and his partner left to live and work in Canada and in July 2020 my partner, Gyula returned to Hungary to spend time with his father who was in palliative care and cared for by his mother and sister at home. Gyula had to seek permission from the Australian government to leave, and from Hungary to enter. This was a long and arduous process, but a window of opportunity opened we knew he had to go for it to see his father physically for the final time. Upon return, he was bumped off his flight three to four times, and in the process and as a result missed his only daughter’s wedding. It was a bittersweet time: sweet time with his dad before he passed, bitter when he couldn’t make it back for his daughter’s wedding.

Although my hometown, Wilcannia, and other outback towns in western NSW had sought to seek understanding of, and have input into, the government’s COVID emergency plans for rural and remote towns 20 months ago, a plan was not forthcoming in time. Wilcannia has now the highest spread per population of COVID.

I worry for my families, friends and colleagues living and working in western NSW to contain the spread and understanding the need to vaccinate. I provide yarning support over the phone and other communication platforms as best I can. Mostly, family just need to be heard, to have company, a voice on the other end of the phone to make laughter of serious, deeply traumatic situations, for us to deal with one day at a time. To look after each other until government can be made accountable and transparent to the Australian people of which they serve. Nothing about us, without us, wirkara way.

To whom would you like to give a shout-out?

Shouting out to strong Blak women from Elders to young ones who guide me, who have my back in the fight for change and justice in our own country. Women who through their own actions and teachings make me strong in my identity as a Blak woman (with a dash of Irish and German). My mother Mary Ann Hausia (nee Bates) and aunties from an early age, always reminding me to ‘don’t be shame, be game’. And to always ask questions I don’t understand, to always unpack deeply, the meaning and actions of the academic/ government lexicon- ‘corrugated iron words’ as my mother says. Words are powerful and must be used in context.

Also, a big shout out to the supportive men and my multicultural extended family – my partner Gyula Kovacs and the Hungarian families who give me strength, my son Jake Mirrimpillyi who challenges my thinking and understanding of the next generation, my Tongan dad John Hausia and our Tongan families, colleagues and friends who have walked alongside me, wirkara way, who make me laugh when I need my spirit lifted. You know who you are, thank you.

What’s coming next for you in your career?

Creating a road map for action underpinned by Durie’s (2005) working at the interface principles of shared benefits, human dignity, discovery, and innovation to raise Indigenous governance and utilise Indigenous methodologies including Yarning, Dadirri and Ganma with western ways of working. I aim to work smart while the window of opportunity is open, particularly with the AKction project, to increase support for Aboriginal people in leadership positions, informed by their lived experience of kidney disease. To promote effective collaboration and partnership between patients and clinical staff; to utilise patient experiences and feedback for guidelines implementation, and initiate service and systems responses; focusing on both clinical and culturally safe care. That the way we work in this project, can be scaled up for health care systems change. To quote my mother, if they (government/NGOs) get it right for blakfullas, they’ll get it right for all fullas.

I’d like to do strengths-based research back on country, Mutawintji lands, western NSW, and to prioritise time to write a book about mum’s journey and mine together in 2022. Perhaps a first book of many to come because there are so many stories hidden that must be told.


1 Comment

  1. Mason Duries work is very significant. I particualrly like the whare tapa wha ( four walls of a house ( mind, body, spirt, family) (Maori) model of health Very holistic. Us white fellas dont have such a health model. The Maoir and I suspect many other cultures were streats ahead of the crowd.

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