The woman’s thigh rested warm against my chest as we talked. “Off to your tropical island now,” I said as I inserted the speculum. Mat taught me that. If he had an uncomfortable procedure coming — a lumbar puncture or MRI — he’d say “I’m off to my tropical island now, Nel,” removing himself mentally from an uncomfortable situation.
“This is the uncomfortable part. Tell me if it’s hurting. You’re doing very well.” I told my patient. She had her arm over her forehead and her head back.
“Here comes the brush now. All good. That’s it.”
I’m painting cells on a glass slide while she gets dressed.
“That was pretty good. Don’t have to think about it for a couple of years now, hopefully,” she says with a smile.
After a year or so working as a clerk, I began to itch for more stimulating work. I was given data entry work on a research project but wanted to do more.
I talked to my former teacher at the university.
“You’re well qualified to do Honours and I’m happy to supervise you,” she said.
I had a project. I recruited a volunteer student director, videographer and editor. We were to make an educational video about Pap tests for Indigenous women.
“It’s a great project, Nelly, but I can’t be in it,” said one of my fellow Koori students. “It’s too late for me.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I’ll be visiting Mum in hospital. She’s got terminal cervical cancer.”
On the Saturday when we made the film, a Torres Strait Islander woman spoke in Kriol to encourage women to care for themselves. “It’s not a myth” that the test could save your life, she said.
Another woman had to leave early, concerned that her son hadn’t come home after a battle with the police. “Big fight in Woolloomooloo last night,” she said. “People say my son stepped in. One of his friends was being taunted by racists. His friend is in hospital, badly hurt. I’m hoping my boy is sleeping somewhere.” She’d been checking her phone all day, but came to contribute.
My mum came to be in the video, which meant a lot to me. She had a long chat with another Koori woman, also fair-skinned, exchanging childhood memories of a big Aboriginal community in Sydney.
“It’s going to be good,” Mum said at the end of the day. “But you’re going to have to get some real Aborigines, too, you know.” She still marginalised herself for her fair skin.
The real test of the completed video was whether the women who participated were happy with it. One was concerned about her comment “If you can go to the club, you can go and have your Pap test.” Could it feed the stereotype that all Aboriginal people are drinkers? We talked about it. “It’s only going to be shown to other Aboriginal women, eh?” she said. “It’ll be alright. It’s good.”
The video was sent nationwide to Aboriginal health services by the anti-cancer charity where I worked. In exchange for distribution they put their imprimatur on it and were permitted to sell it for education. I felt pleased and proud.
The morning after the videos were mailed I had a phone call from Aunty Selva, who was second in command at an Aboriginal health service featured in the video. Selva gave me permission to film outside the service. I stood outside and said positive things about the service; got an outdoor shot for the film. Women in the country would like seeing a scene from the city.
“You’re going to have to burn them all!” Selva said. Her boss disapproved. Selva was credited in the film and her boss wasn’t. I felt like I’d been knifed. “Please Aunty, there must be another way.” “No, they’ll all have to be called back and destroyed.”
My mentor at the anti-cancer charity was experienced with this sort of egoism. We composed a letter and negotiated a solution. Eventually we sent a letter all over the country making it clear that Mrs Control Freak in the city was in no way associated with the video.
My Honours thesis was about barriers to Pap testing for Aboriginal women. The video was part of the thesis and now I needed to research and write a small book on the subject. In those days you made a cup of tea waiting for an internet page to load.
I was writing my thesis on a computer made from parts found on the street, which GB had cleverly put together. It worked well – till it suddenly died taking my first 12,000 words with it. The thesis was begun again from scraps of paper and notes in books. My son showed me how to save my work on a remote server after that.
My thesis was accepted. With renewed confidence I considered returning to study medicine. I had counselling sessions with a kind GP who was a good listener. A stalwart friend gave me the hundred dollar application fee to sit for the admission exam. I revised my chemistry and physics. “Just give it a go, Nel,” I could hear Mat’s voice say.
The five-hour exam covered sciences and humanities. One of the essay topics was Aboriginal deaths in police custody. I’d marched in demonstrations. My involvement with the issue was heartfelt. I did well in the exam and expressed myself honestly at the interview.
I enjoyed being a full-time student in Medicine again. I was no longer that old, strange, anxious one. Having deeply studied the scientific basis of medicine — I’d done years of anatomy and biochemistry — I knew medical language and understood the underlying concepts that so few can teach.
The background knowledge that young colleagues from intensive private schooling and medical families were able to take for granted had seeped into my flesh, if not yet into my bones. A kind doctor working in drug and alcohol rehab gave me casual work, so I was a part-time clerk again, as well as a student at the hospital.
Despite this inside view, the culture of the physicians was impenetrable to me. The doctors were abrupt with the nurses and clerical staff. They seemed to value emotional detachment and memorised jingles of knowledge. You had to look alert and stressed but avoid being actually sensitive to the patients. Or, at least, be sensitive to the patient in a rigid and limited way that I resisted learning.
After persevering for a year and a half, still feeling out of place, I went to see the head of the school, a plump man with a natural curl in his dyed black hair. I wanted to be transferred to the other teaching hospital in the city, a veteran’s hospital in a traditionally working class area.
“Why would you want to do that?” he asked in his cultured voice.
“I don’t fit in at the Royal,” I said. I was wearing a wool tunic in bright orange plaid. I felt like a schoolgirl.
“Why on earth would you feel that way?” he asked, astonished.
“Oh, I don’t know. It could be because I come from a mixed-race family and identify as Aboriginal, it could be because I’m a single mother, it could be because my politics are more liberal than most. I don’t know why they don’t like me.”
His jaw dropped and he was silent for a beat. “Oh, but no one would ever know! No one would even know you’re Aboriginal. It must be very far back. You’re as white as anyone now.”