How a near-drowning informs health career

·2-min read

Faye McMillan was almost a victim of drowning, having been pulled unresponsive from a backyard pool as a child.

"That has carried through the generations of our family and is still spoken about 50 years later," the deputy national rural health commissioner told the National Water Safety Summit in Sydney on Friday.

"It had a profound impact on my family, the way we understand the power of water and what that means for our community."

Dr McMillan, a Wiradjuri woman who grew up in Trangie in western NSW, says any water safety policy needs to recognise the deep cultural significance of waterways for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

"It was part of my growing up and understanding the land where I come from."

Dr McMillan highlighted the Australian Water Safety Council's 2030 strategy, which shows rivers and lakes account for 36 per cent of drowning deaths, compared to 41 per cent in coastal settings.

Drowning rates in remote areas are eight times higher than in major cities, and 13 times higher in very remote areas.

"This is a concern because what happens in drowning is the need for the health workforce to be a part of that," she said.

"Like the health status, the more rural and remote you are, the higher burden of disease or death is there."

She said it was crucial to engage with Indigenous communities to offer culturally appropriate water safety programs, and ensure there are equal opportunities for employment in the sector.

Indigenous communities all have different experiences with water, she told the conference, run by Royal Life Saving and Surf Life Saving.

"We know we have young people who have never seen the ocean ... some of our elders have never seen coastal waters.

"And some people of coastal waters have never seen our magnificent rivers and waterways."

Dr McMillan, who was the first Indigenous person to hold a western degree in pharmacy, was recently named Pharmacist of the Year by the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia.

She said the rural areas that had successful approaches to health were those where the community had been an active part of planning.

"We need to look to the community leaders, the ones who are there every day," she said.

"Communities are just getting on and doing things and when we travel around and see them, we are completely blown away by the innovation and commitment that happens in the absence of other involvement."

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