April 2012

A committed and passionate advocate

“I’m not very good at being sweet and compassionate and kind, tending [to] individual people’s wounds,” says Good Samaritan Sister Catherine Norman. “I’m not bad at that, but I think I’m better at seeing how [I] can change systems”.

BY Stephanie Thomas

Good Samaritan Sister Catherine Norman admits she’s “not very good at being sweet and compassionate and kind, tending [to] individual people’s wounds”.

“I’m not bad at that, but I think I’m better at seeing how [I] can change systems, influencing the way government does things,” she explains. “Having a voice at that level to me is the most effective use of my talents.”

As Area Manager of Multicultural Health Services for Hunter New England Health, Catherine is well placed to do this. With 33 staff based at the Newcastle unit and over 300 spread across a large part of New South Wales – including the Hunter, New England, Central Coast and North Coast regions – Catherine and her team are responsible for ensuring that people from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds are able to access public health services in ways that are appropriate for them.

In addition to the Multicultural Health Unit’s main services – the Health Care Interpreter Service, the NSW Rural Health Care Interpreter Service, Multicultural Health Liaison and the Refugee Health Clinic – Catherine and her staff also provide education and advice to Hunter New England Health staff – some 16,000 people – on multicultural health issues.

While the task sounds enormous, Catherine doesn’t seem fazed by it. She is passionate about her work and energised by it. “I love it,” she says. “I have to retire soon because I’m getting too old, but I will be sad to go.”

Catherine’s commitment to quality health care that can be accessed by all is palpable. Respect for a person’s culture and language reflects not only her strong belief in their inherent dignity and worth; it has very practical ramifications. In some cases, a lack of awareness of, and sensitivity to, another’s culture and language can be a matter of life and death.

She cites the example of a refugee who visited a GP for a pregnancy test and support. After the visit, the confused woman contacted the refugee health nurse for help to decipher the contents of the GP’s referral letter, only to discover that the referral was for a termination.

“What she wanted was to be transitioned to antenatal [support]; not for a termination,” exclaims Catherine. “The doctor didn’t use an interpreter; the doctor assumed the woman understood her, which obviously she didn’t!”

A clearly frustrated Catherine says, “We’ve had so many tug-of-wars with doctors who think that they can do a health assessment on a person without communicating with them!”

Catherine first became involved in multicultural health over 20 years ago when she relocated from Sydney to Newcastle to care for her mother. But her involvement in multiculturalism began much earlier when she was a teacher and deputy principal at St Brigid’s High School in the Sydney suburb of Marrickville.

It was during the 1970s when an influx of migrants and refugees arrived in Australia from Asia, the Middle East and Europe that Catherine was thrust into multicultural education. At St Brigid’s and later St Joseph’s Newtown, she instigated a range of support services and programs to help the high percentage of non-English-speaking background (NESB) students and their families.

Around this time Catherine also completed a Master of Multicultural Education. The results of her research, which she implemented in her school community, indicated that children who maintain their first language do much better in English.

In the early 1990s, Catherine’s life was turned upside down when her mother suffered a severe stroke with serious complications, including loss of speech. The experience also led her into a new ministry area.

“That brought me… face-to-face with the health system and I didn’t like what I saw,” she reflects. “I’d drive up [to Newcastle] in the middle of the week from Newtown to visit her in hospital. I’d ask what was happening; no one could tell me.”

Frustrated by her mother’s ineligibility for rehabilitation, Catherine moved her mother to a rehabilitation centre in Sydney. But after more neurosurgery, her mother’s health deteriorated further.

To be closer to family, Catherine moved her mother to a nursing home in Port Stephens, just north of Newcastle. But the situation for her mother got worse before it got better. After still more difficult health care experiences, including a disturbing period at a psychiatric unit, Catherine decided to care for her mother at home.

Catherine applied for positions in Newcastle, and soon, she was not only teaching English as a second language (ESL) at TAFE, but also employed as an Ethnic Project Worker at the John Hunter Hospital.

An aspect of Catherine’s hospital role that stands out for her was her work with international medical graduates. Initially these doctors were sent to her so she could assess their English skills and refer them for appropriate assistance. But Catherine questioned why this hadn’t happened before their employment.

Recognising the many difficulties these doctors faced and the little support they received, it wasn’t long before Catherine was running sessions to help them settle into their new workplace and community. She was also an advocate for them when difficulties arose with hospital management.

“It wasn’t my job, but I felt someone had to go into bat for them,” she says.

“The way they were treated was so awful. So I spent a lot of time… trying to get a better deal for international medical graduates. I was trying to emphasise that if Hunter New England Health is going to be culturally competent, we have to be culturally competent in the management of our staff.”

It’s not hard to identify a strong social justice and advocacy motif running through Catherine’s life. And I haven’t mentioned her involvement in environmental issues, particularly in relation to the Cooks River in Sydney and local government committees.

So what has motivated such a strong commitment to social justice, particularly to structural justice?

Catherine refers to Jesus’ emphasis on right relationships rather than the law as a guiding principle in her life. “I think that’s important and I think that’s the hardest thing to learn, really.”

Commitment and dedication are also core values for Catherine. “You’ve got to have commitment. I think commitment is one of the most important things in life.”

She recognises these values in her colleagues at the Multicultural Health Unit. “If we get someone in a job [who] doesn’t have that commitment you see it straight away. They don’t have that fire in the belly. They don’t have that dedication, that commitment to change things.

“I would say all of our staff have that… commitment to really make an impact, to really try and do the best possible for people.”

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