Cultural knowledge a central part of hospital chaplaincy for Reg and Donna
By Caroline Smith
Spending time in hospital, especially far away from your own community and culture – can be a stressful experience for many patients, but it is something which Reg Carnamah and Donna Ryder, who are Aboriginal pastoral care assistants at Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, aim to reduce.
Mr Carnamah and Ms Ryder have been working as pastoral care assistants for eight years and three years respectively, providing prayers and support, including that of a specific cultural nature – to Aboriginal patients of all denominations and backgrounds across Perth, in hospitals and private residences.
“We go to the hospital office and the pastoral care workers will bring down a list of patients and we pick it up from there,” Mr Carnamah said.
“Then we’ll go around to the patients and see if we can help in some way or another. And sometimes the patients give us a contact number if they want us to go out into the community and help with a baptism or other sacrament.”
Ms Ryder said people were often just looking for a conversation, but open to receiving spiritual support as well.
“We go everywhere, from the cardiac care to ICU and rehab and mental health wards, and it’s just talking to people,” she said.
“But nine times out of ten people will want prayers, so we’ll give them a rosary and a prayer card and ask them how they’re travelling.”
Since many Indigenous patients come to Perth from country areas, she and Mr Carnamah were able to provide information and a local connection as well, she added.
“Because a lot of our patients are people that come into the hospital from up north or down south, when they come here they don’t have much family here, so we do that initial contact with them,” Ms Ryder said.
“I’ve had patients at Royal Perth that couldn’t find their way back home from Perth and were wandering around outside, and I know the Country Healthcare Services is around the corner, so I would take them there and say, ‘these mob come from so-and-so, would you be able to help them get back home?’”
Mr Carnamah, a Badimaia man from Yalgoo in the mid-west, said it was also important for cultural issues to be respected for patients, to make their hospital experience smoother.
“It helps them feel more relaxed and can help break down barriers,” he said.
“Because sometimes there will be tribal men and they want to talk to the elders about specific issues and feel uncomfortable talking with the white folks about them.
“Having someone who understands this makes them feel more positive within the hospital.”
Ms Ryder, a Yuat woman from New Norcia, recalled several experiences which showed the importance of cultural knowledge and how it could provide additional support.
“I walked into Charlie Gairdners Hospital once and there was an old tribal man there and he didn’t speak a word of English and the nurses were beside themselves and asked me if I spoke his language,” she said.
“I said no, but then I went through our list of patients and there was a young man down the bottom who was from the same area, and I said, bring him up and maybe he can break through the barriers for you, if he sits next to him, he can do the culturally-sensitive stuff because he’s from the same country.
“Over at Royal Perth, there are certain things they’ll do for Aboriginal people, like they’ll serve them emu and kangaroo, even though it’s not on the menu.
“So until we come round, then it’s like, you mob know you can order kangaroo and emu?”
While both pastoral care assistants come from a Catholic background and work for ACM, they support and work with patients of all different faith backgrounds.
“Whatever denomination they are, we just see everyone,” Ms Ryder said.
“We get a list of every Aboriginal patient that’s in the hospital, it normally says on the side if they’re Catholic or Baptist or whatever.
But we don’t discriminate – we just sit and have a yarn and see where they’re at.”
However, people were often happy to receive prayer cards and rosary beads, she added.
“We normally have rosaries in the colours of the Australian Aboriginal flag that we give to everyone, which is pretty amazing, because we’re the only ones that have the red, black and yellow beads, but they’re right throughout our community, they’re everywhere,” Ms Ryder said.
“They’re made by some religious sisters via the Legion of Mary. We just ring them and order rosary beads, and they do about 200 – 300 for us at a time.”
From pages 12 to 13 from Issue 8: ‘Aboriginal’ of The Record Magazine