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Stuart McGrath, a Yolngu man from Elcho Island, who is studying to become an RN, says his studies has helped broaden his expertise beyond the already extensive skills he possesses as an Aboriginal Health Practitioner (AHP).

“This is more a medical perspective, rather than my role as a cultural broker and advocate,” Stuart says, distinguishing between his current work in the community and the studies that he is completing.

“Nursing teaches you to analyse things critically at a global scale, it’s fair to say.”

While Stuart will be the first Yolngu RN in his community when he completes his degree, he is already shaping and modelling culturally safe care within the community he works in.

He is an integral part of the Miwatj Aboriginal Corporation’s Yirrkala Men’s Health program, running a monthly ‘walk-off’ where men in his community can come together, make spears, go fishing, enjoy barbecues and freely chat together, with Stuart saying the activities seek to build trust and engagement with the health system long term.

While his day-to-day work in East Arnhem Land runs the full gamut of presentations, from mental health through to substance abuse, he has also recently worked as a casual research assistant within the Menzies School of Health Research, as part of the Communicate project.

As part of the project’s research outcomes, he worked as a co-host on the Ask a Specialist podcast, which seeks to address gaps and shortcomings in the cultural understanding of white medical practitioners who are working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients.

While the podcast has received national accolades and found a global audience, Stuart admitted he was taken aback that the sort of cultural education the podcast, and research project helped provide wasn’t completed much earlier.

“I thought this was done 30 years ago,” Stuart recalls saying when he first interviewed to be involved in the project.

“That’s pretty scary, this hasn’t been done before… There’s a big gap in communication as such, and that’s recognising a patient’s cultural background and language barrier as well.

“That’s the big thing that stood out to me.”

Stuart’s work that has seen him recognised at state and national level, being named as the NT’s 2021 Young Australian of the Year, travelling to the national award ceremony, held on Ngunnawal Land (Canberra) in January.

However, Stuart remains committed to both his family, raising two young daughters while pursuing studies, and his broader community, seeing his work as an AHP and RN as a personal contribution to a better future for his people.

Stuart says he hopes his nursing degree will help him to challenge systemic issues in healthcare.

“We have the worst health outcomes in the country – that kind of was the big push and motivation for me to do something about it…Not that I’m saying I’m going to save my people in my lifetime but at least I can do something,” he says.

“It’s advocating and not just looking at things clinically, but looking at things as a whole – dealing with patients, language, cultural belief, the view of the world in the Yolngu patient’s eyes.

“Putting all that into consideration when I’m dealing with patients, and the best way to do it is to broaden my knowledge by doing my nursing degree.”

Furthermore, with the elevated platform that the NT Young Australian of the Year provides, Stuart, plans to demonstrate the power that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community has have when they enter, change and disrupt a system that has historically ignored their views, language and perspective.

“I’m going to use this platform for encouraging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to get into health, education, politics and law,” he says.

“If we’re all in the system, then we can beat the system, and then we can talk about Closing the Gap.”