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Meet 2022 OAM, Vicki O'Donnell from Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services

7 Mar 2022

Vicki O’Donnell, a Nyikina Mangala woman from Derby in Western Australia, is the third person in her family to receive the OAM for community work. Here she talks about the influence of her family and her passion for Aboriginal community health.

When Vic­ki first heard she had been nom­i­nat­ed for the Order of Aus­tralia Medal (OAM) this year, she thought it was a scam.

I am a hum­ble per­son, I just do the work,” she says. 

It’s true I may have been the voice for Abo­rig­i­nal pri­ma­ry health in the Kim­ber­ley, but there is a whole team of peo­ple behind me doing a lot of the work… This medal is for all the teams I’ve worked with.”

Vic­ki, who has worked as a strate­gic leader in Abo­rig­i­nal Com­mu­ni­ty Con­trolled Health (ACCH) for near­ly 20 years, received her OAM for her involve­ment in Indige­nous affairs and Indige­nous health in the Kim­ber­ley and across the state. She comes from a long line of fam­i­ly mem­bers who speak up and are the voice for their community.

Her mum Elsa Archer received the OAM four years ago for ser­vices to the com­mu­ni­ty, and her aunt Carmel Moore, her dad’s sis­ter, received it about 20 years ago for her involve­ment with the CWA. Her dad, who died at 57, was involved in the Shire, speed­way and many com­mu­ni­ty clubs.

I put it down to my upbring­ing,” says Vic­ki, whose dad was Abo­rig­i­nal, her mum non-Indige­nous. She learned over the years to speak up for her­self, for Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties, for Abo­rig­i­nal health, to become a voice, to make a mark.

We’ve a way to go, but we’ve come a long way,” says Vic­ki. We are now at the table with a voice that is heard – but there are still occa­sions we have to knock at the door, and loud­ly, to point out that we are here.”

With a Diplo­ma busi­ness degree, Vicki’s work­ing life began in WA State Health and then with Abo­rig­i­nal Affairs. She then became CEO of Der­by Abo­rig­i­nal Health Ser­vice for 12 years and has been the CEO of the Kim­ber­ley Abo­rig­i­nal Med­ical Ser­vices (KAMS) in Broome for the past sev­en years. KAMS pro­vides advo­ca­cy and ser­vices to mem­ber ser­vices, across over 15 remote clin­ics. 80 per cent of clients are Indigenous.

I’ve always had a pas­sion to work in this field, to try and give back and pro­vide advo­ca­cy for health for Indige­nous peo­ple,” says Vic­ki, who is proud of the com­pre­hen­sive approach of the Abo­rig­i­nal Com­mu­ni­ty Con­trolled Health Ser­vice (ACCHS) which began in Red­fern in NSW over 40 years ago, and came very soon to WA. Broome was the first in the Kimberley.

We were in front pro­vid­ing com­pre­hen­sive pri­ma­ry health care which is all about well­be­ing as well as acute ill­ness,” says Vicki. 

When you go into a state health sys­tem, it is still very much that you are treat­ed for what you are there for.

In the Abo­rig­i­nal sys­tem, it is about your whole health and well­be­ing, with fol­low-ups and refer­rals. We have strong links and part­ner­ships with main­stream health ser­vices who are now tak­ing advice from us, learn­ing from our def­i­n­i­tion of health care.

It is a mod­el where the doc­tor, the nurs­es and the Abo­rig­i­nal Health Work­ers are all equal­ly impor­tant. I think it works well and the non-Indige­nous health work­ers who work in our sys­tem are also strong believers.

It’s a pri­ma­ry health care and pre­ven­tion sys­tem that works to pre­vent clients going into hos­pi­tal, that enables peo­ple who are not well to be man­aged at home.”

Vic­ki is delight­ed to see that the ACCHS has grown to have a voice of its own.

See­ing young peo­ple move into man­age­r­i­al roles, that’s some­thing you wouldn’t have seen before,” she says. 

It’s impor­tant to back our young lead­ers and their deci­sions, and my view is, if a mis­take can be cor­rect­ed, it’s not a mistake.

Every per­son should have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to man­age. If you don’t get that oppor­tu­ni­ty, you don’t get the experience. 

We have some young lead­ers in their 20s, and old­er lead­ers in their 30s, and we need to sup­port them all, help them step onto the lad­der and climb.”

Vic­ki is also proud that KAMS is now the provider of all renal ser­vices in the Kim­ber­ley, win­ning the ten­der last year. 

We have a great part­ner­ship with the WA Health Ser­vice,” she says. We are bring­ing home dial­y­sis to more peo­ple, treat­ing 160 peo­ple a week.

Our aim is to slow down Stages 1 to 3 and to tar­get pre­ven­tion by advo­cat­ing invest­ing in envi­ron­men­tal health – that means bet­ter hous­ing, bet­ter-placed rub­bish tips, food secu­ri­ty… That focus would help great­ly with a num­ber of oth­er ill­ness­es too, includ­ing dia­betes and cardio-vascular.

The fact is, you get sick for a rea­son,” says Vicki. 

A study has shown that pri­ma­ry dis­ease, accord­ing to the World Health Organ­i­sa­tion def­i­n­i­tion, was the rea­son why most Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple spent time in hos­pi­tal over a peri­od of a year in WA, cost­ing the state $14 million.

Gov­ern­ments need to focus on the front end,” says Vic­ki, deal­ing with over­crowd­ing, for exam­ple, and spend­ing mon­ey on all those envi­ron­men­tal issues, rather than the bricks and mor­tar of new hospitals.”

Vic­ki meet­ing with com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers and health staff in Bea­gle Bay at the begin­ning of COVID-19 Vac­cine Rollout

Vic­ki is also proud of the COVID-19 response from ACCHS.

We led the way in WA,” she says. In the Kim­ber­ley, we were on the front foot at the very start, deal­ing with 22 cas­es, the high­est fig­ure in any region. And we have con­tin­ued to be proactive.

Even before the WA gov­ern­ment, with the lat­est wave, we were putting in orders for vac­cines, for RATS, for masks and mak­ing plans.”

Vic­ki believes the Kim­ber­ley region has been suc­cess­ful because of its abil­i­ty to work well as a sec­tor, share infor­ma­tion to avoid over­lap and rep­e­ti­tion, get the mes­sages across to our mob to be safe.”

We did the same with action to pro­mote the vac­cine and, with the lat­est out­break, we will be pre­pared as well as we can be. There will always be issues to be ironed out, but we will make sure we work as well as pos­si­ble with what­ev­er happens.”

Know a high achiev­er like Vic­ki? Nom­i­nate them for a CRANAplus Award.