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OA honours nurse as reformer, educator

A nurse and academic with almost half a century of international and Australian experience has received one of the highest awards in the 2015 Australia Day honours.

Dr Di Brown, who arrived in Australia in 1973 to work in the bush nursing service in remote Western Australia, has been recognised for her distinguished service to the profession via her dedication to quality care, professional development and education throughout the Asia and South Pacific region. Now she has been named an officer in the General Division of the Order of Australia.

After beginning her career in the UK in the '60s, Brown was convinced by some Australian doctors she was working with in Portsmouth to join the bush nursing service as a means of seeing the country.

“So I came to Perth, where I had relatives, and got a job working in Laverton right out to the north-east of Kalgoorlie. There were no doctors,” she recalls. “I loved it; working with the Aboriginal people and the autonomy of it all. We did have the flying doctors available on the radio, so we did just about everything.”

She met the man who would become her husband after relocating to Sydney. The couple then lived in Canberra where she completed her first degree – in health education – and had the opportunity to work in drug and alcohol services.

After returning to Sydney, Brown worked as a nurse unit manager in the pain ward at the Woodside Clinic before commencing what was supposed to be a short-term role at the University of Technology, Sydney in 1991.

Over the next 15 years at the university, she completed her graduate diploma and PhD, as well as taking on a range of roles including professor of nursing at UTS’s World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre and associate dean teaching and learning.

During this period, she also worked in Indonesia with World Bank health projects. This led to her accepting a professorship at the Northern Territory's Charles Darwin University, where she now holds a professorial fellowship, and a role as acting executive director of nursing at the Royal Darwin Hospital.

After an 18-month stint reviewing and then helping to manage an overhaul of nurse services in Mt Isa, she and her husband spent an extended period volunteering in Indonesia with a non-government organisation.

It was this work that would eventually lead to her current role as project director of the sister hospital program. Since 2012, Brown has been overseeing the partnering of Bali’s Sanglah Hospital with the Royal Darwin as part of an Indonesian Government push to bring its facilities up to international standards.

“The Northern Territory Government has a policy of Asian engagement and outreach and [CDU] knew I was there because I kept in touch with a few people from my time there," she explained. "Things started to come together at the right time … It suited everybody’s agendas."

With some additional funding via AusAID, Brown says, the project has been a huge and ongoing success, with health service quality and management continuing to improve.

“It has been fantastic. The hospital was accredited by the Joint Commission International for three years. It has still a long way to go but the improvements have been phenomenal across the board.

“We have introduced the first ever clinical nurse educators in Indonesia in a government hospital. The introduction of the Australian triage scale to the ED is [also a first for the country].”

Other initiatives have included more closely aligning Indonesia's midwifery protocols to those in Australia and introducing lactation consultants, resulting in an almost 100 per cent breastfeeding rate across the ward. The hospital’s cleaning services are now also being better managed.

“Just talking with the local community, how they talk about Sanglah is completely different to how they used to talk about it before,” Brown says. “They feel that the quality of care has improved and that the nurses really care about what happens to them now.”

Brown says that whilst she is proud of a long career in nursing, she had been shocked and humbled by the scale of the honour awarded to her.

“The thing that took me aback was [being named an officer]," she says. "People I have seen have all got [a Medal of the Order], so I was really taken aback, especially as I understand I’m the only nurse in this category in 2015. I am glad somebody is flying the flag, but it made me think about the issue of nurses hiding their light under a bushel.

“We are not very good at promoting one another or ourselves but there are a lot of nurses out there who are doing great work and are deserving of recognition.”

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