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First Nations leader on a mission to Close the Gap

Published:  16 March 2023

Having been described as the ‘cultural heart’ of the health service, Trevor Prior is on a mission to improve the health of First Nations people in North Queensland.

His leadership as cultural practice coordinator has been shaped by past encounters with racism, health battles that almost claimed his life, and underpinning it all, an unwavering resolve to change the fate of his people.

To describe his commitment to Closing the Gap – the startling disparity in health outcomes and life expectancy for First Nations people – Trevor recounted a pivotal moment from his childhood.
Almost half a century has passed, but the memory still burns strongly for the proud Birri Gubba man.

He was just 13 years old when his teacher told him, “you can’t do the hard maths class, Trevor.”

The blunt assessment had nothing to do with Trevor’s academic ability, and everything to do with the colour of his skin.

“I knew I could handle the hard maths class; the only reason I wasn’t allowed to do it was because all the Aboriginal kids were put in the bottom class by default,” Trevor said.

This wasn’t his first encounter with intrinsic racism, nor would it be his last.

“I was so determined to show that I could do the harder classes that I went back and repeated entire years of schooling, just so I could go up to the harder classes.

“That allowed me to go on and become the only person from Ingham State High School to get an apprenticeship in my graduating year.”

Within six years, he was running his own business – a feat well beyond the comprehension of the teacher who’d once misjudged him.

“When the recession hit, I saw an opportunity arise with the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority for an electrical engineering traineeship, so I went for it.”

While Trevor was enjoying the success of this new venture, he had no idea how close to death he was.

He likely never would have known, if not for a twist of fate that only came about because of Trevor’s renowned goodwill.

“I was driving past the ambulance building on my day off when I noticed one of the paramedics mowing the lawn out the front.

“I went and introduced myself and found out he was only mowing because the council there wasn’t doing it anymore, which meant the ambos would be delayed if there was an emergency they had to race off to.

“I said ‘you’re not mowing this anymore, mate. From now on, I’m going to come and do it for free.’”

Trevor volunteered his mowing services for the next four years, during which time he formed a strong bond with ambulance staff.

It was that bond that prompted one of the paramedics to urge Trevor to get his heart checked.

“I was strong and fit so I thought I had nothing to worry about, but the paramedic pointed out I was at risk of heart disease because of my family history, being on blood pressure medication and having type two diabetes.

“I did an angiogram at Wagga Wagga Base Hospital and they discovered one artery was fully blocked and the other two were 80 per cent blocked, so they sent me straight to Sydney for triple bypass surgery.”

The health emergency came as a huge shock, given the then-44-year-old’s healthy lifestyle.

“I’ve never drank alcohol, never smoked, never did drugs, just like close members of my family but they still died in their 40s and 50s.”

After his near-death experience, Trevor returned home to North Queensland where he landed the role of cultural practice coordinator at Townsville Hospital and Health Service.

He now leads cultural capability training, a mandatory program that educates clinicians on the history of First Nations people, while teaching them how to improve interactions with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients.

“My training program is not about blaming anyone for the past; it’s about teaching an important part of history and culture that isn’t taught in schools,” Trevor said.

“By improving our staff’s cultural understanding, they become more empathetic to our First Nations people, which helps provide a better service for patients.”

From a quiet schoolboy held back by the prejudice of a misguided teacher, Trevor has become a champion for change, educating even the most educated doctors in new ways.

But his job isn’t done yet.

“I’m hopeful we can close the gap in our lifetime if everybody gets on board and works together, particularly the younger generations.”

Townsville Hospital and Health Service Chief Executive Kieran Keyes said recent data from the Productivity Commission’s Closing the Gap Information Repository highlighted that there was still a long way to go in improving health outcomes for First Nations people.

‘‘The data tells us that First Nations males have a life expectancy of 71.6 years compared to non-indigenous males at 80.2. While First Nations women have a life expectancy of 75.6, which is 7.8 years less than non-First Nations women,’’ Mr Keyes said.

‘‘Last year we launched the Townsville Hospital and Health Service’s inaugural First Nations Health Equity Strategy 2022-2025 which was the first step in our journey towards health equity.

‘‘The journey to equity in healthcare and health outcomes is anchored in culturally safe health practices, First Nations self-determination, and a whole-of-health-service commitment to addressing the barriers to equity.

“We also recently launched the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Workforce Strategy 2022-2031, which focuses on removing barriers that have hindered the growth of the First Nations health workforce.

‘‘I know by working together we can achieve our goals, because the journey of health equity and better health outcomes is one we must take together.”

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