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From ED to PHC: Leonie's Leap of Faith

4 Apr 2022

Leonie Higgs made a ‘leap of faith’ into remote health in late 2021 when she took a primary health care position in Cape York. We caught up with her in January to discuss her new sense of purpose, staying close with family, and her experience as a Māori nurse in remote Australia.


Leonie Hig­gs has spent the last five months work­ing full-time for Aurukun Health Ser­vice, after mak­ing a rad­i­cal change from a career in met­ro­pol­i­tan hos­pi­tals and major trau­ma centres.

I was at that stage of my career when I was think­ing, I’m tired of emer­gency, I’m tired of trau­ma,” Leonie says. There has to be some­thing else out there in nursing.

It’s not until you actu­al­ly come out into the remote com­mu­ni­ties that you realise, yeah, I can make a dif­fer­ence… It quick­ly becomes clear how much nurs­es are need­ed and appreciated.

I feel more val­ued out here than in the major hos­pi­tals. [There] you sta­bilise clients and move them onto their spe­cial­i­ty, and that’s the end of that. Where­as here it’s more chron­ic. It’s health lit­er­a­cy, edu­ca­tion, and being here all the time.

In the metro set­ting, all the junior doc­tors or NPs that are com­ing through do all the things like plas­ter­ing, sutur­ing, sta­pling, man­ag­ing peo­ple with pain. Where­as here, you get the oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn all of these skills and our scope opens up.”

Dur­ing her two days off a week, Leonie occa­sion­al­ly heads to Aurukun Land­ing, lis­tens to music (“Strict­ly RnB” includ­ing SIX60 and L.A.B.), and stud­ies her mas­ters in Geron­tol­ogy, which she is set to com­plete by 2023.

When out and about, she’s often in the com­pa­ny of camp dog Boo, with whom she’s devel­oped a mutu­al bond.

Boo Leonie s adopted dog

Camp dog Boo.

Leonie says that com­ing from a Māori back­ground, her fam­i­ly is her life force, and so it’s been hard to be apart. How­ev­er, she’s found ways to stay close. 

I talk to them every day, I Face Time them,” she says. My fam­i­ly is real­ly, real­ly good. They under­stand. I dis­cussed it with my fam­i­ly [before leav­ing] and my hus­band said to me, If that’s what you want to do, you go. If you find you enjoy it, I’ll stay home with our youngest child and take care of the house’.”

Main­tain­ing these con­nec­tions with fam­i­ly and devel­op­ing new con­nec­tions with her team has helped Leonie to man­age the work and the on-call hours.

You know that if any­thing goes pear-shaped while you’re at work, they’re there,” Leonie says, speak­ing of her team. They’ve got your back. These peo­ple were all strangers to me before I came here, but you learn to rely on your col­leagues. You trea­sure their skills and what they have to offer.”

Kristy Benjamin Maxine Hafey Jeanene Monahan and Leonie back

Kristy Ben­jamin, Max­ine Hafey, Jeanene Mon­a­han and Leonie (back).

The con­nec­tions she has formed with com­mu­ni­ty have also helped Leonie to feel at home: “[Peo­ple in the com­mu­ni­ty] get to know you and they ask for you specif­i­cal­ly. It’s like you get to be part of their fam­i­lies.

I’ve got one lady here who want­ed to adopt me. I said to her Thank you so much, I appre­ci­ate it, but I have a family’.

She’s got dia­betes, and she knows I’m going on leave tomor­row, and she says to me, Girl, I’ll come see you at the air­port.’ I said, Oh no, Aun­tie, don’t come and see me off because I know it’s dif­fi­cult for you to get there and I’ll be back in three weeks.’ You build those rela­tion­ships with the locals that you treasure.”

Leonie has a Māori moko kauae, a tra­di­tion­al facial tat­too that rep­re­sents who she is, where she is from, and the sto­ry of her peo­ple, the Ngāti Porou, who are cus­to­di­ans of the Gis­borne region on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island.

Her her­itage increas­es her aware­ness of the strug­gles faced by Australia’s First Peo­ples, but she empha­sis­es that no one can under­stand these bet­ter than Indige­nous Aus­tralians themselves.

My peo­ple have come such a long way with health lit­er­a­cy,” she says. We have doc­tors, we have Māori nurs­es. And you come to this big coun­try called Aus­tralia and into these remote com­mu­ni­ties and see how some First Nations peo­ple are liv­ing in chal­leng­ing con­di­tions and hav­ing to trav­el long dis­tances to access basic health services.

Leonie Joe Tuitupou Security

Leonie and Joe Tuitupou (Secu­ri­ty)

You have to get Indige­nous work­ers for Indige­nous peo­ple. They under­stand, they know what they’re going through, and they can relate.

Even though I’m black, they class me as white because I’ve dropped into this com­mu­ni­ty. Some of them have nev­er seen a Māori per­son before. They’re like, What you got that tat­too on your chin for?’ When you sit down and explain it to them, they’re like, Oh, that’s beautiful.’

We need to sup­port our First Nations peo­ple to help improve health out­comes, so that Elders can pass on their valu­able knowl­edge and skills to the next gen­er­a­tions to follow.”

When CRANAplus spoke with Leonie in Jan­u­ary, she had recent­ly applied for her con­tract to be extend­ed for six months. While she isn’t sure what the next five years hold, she says One thing I know for sure is that I absolute­ly enjoy being a remote nurse and being a part of a team that real­ly cares. It’s lib­er­at­ing to feel that you’re con­tribut­ing to the com­mu­ni­ty and mak­ing a difference. 

If I could have done this long ago, I would have. Hindsight’s a beau­ti­ful thing.

I think [met­ro­pol­i­tan nurs­es] should just do it, if they have even the tini­est inkling to come remote. Oth­er­wise, they don’t know whether they’ll like it or not. You miss out on so many things if you aren’t open to new expe­ri­ences. You’ve got to take the plunge.” 

Atima Bin Juda Leonie Maddison Blake

Ati­ma Bin-Juda, Leonie and Mad­di­son Blake.

You can take the first step towards a career in remote nurs­ing by email­ing TCHHS-​NursingMidwifery-​Recruitment@​health.​qld.​gov.​au