Building a place for mothers and children and guiding mob through their studies, Ngunnawal woman Cassandra Nest is a midwife making a difference.

Based in Queensland’s Gold Coast, Nest is a finalist in the 2020 HESTA Australia Nursing and Midwifery Awards; one of the three finalists up for Midwife of the Year.

“I feel really blessed and privileged … I could never have imagined that I could be a finalist!” Nest laughed.

“You do what you do, and you never expect to be thanked or acknowledged for doing your job, but it is such a special feeling to be acknowledged.”

Nest found her calling in the stories of her grandmothers.

“I learnt about birthing and women’s business from my Aunties and Nan. My [Aboriginal] Nan was a nurse in the war, my white Nan was a birth attendant in England … and both of them used to help people birth their babies,” Nest said.

“When I got to that age and they started to tell me those stories, I felt like midwifery was what I was supposed to be doing.”

Moving into her tertiary education, Nest struggled with the deficit-based perspective placed upon her people.

“When I got to [university] I started to hear how my people were talked about … I learnt I am a risk factor … Prior to going to [university] I didn’t see myself as that, I saw my family as strong, resilient … our culture thrived for 60,000 years.”

“That became my passion and drive, to challenge and change that deficient discourse and to improve the experiences of our mob.”

“The only way this is going to change is with more mob having a voice in health care services, more mob as midwives and nurses, and by graduating students who are advocates for human rights and social justice.

“Gold Coast University Hospital, Griffith University Midwifery and the [Griffith University] First Peoples Health Unit have shown their commitment to this with their ongoing support.”

Nest became the first Aboriginal woman to complete Griffith University’s Bachelor of Midwifery and is now a mentor for First Nations midwifery students.

She was also the first Aboriginal woman to join the midwifery group practice at Gold Coast University Hospital (now Gold Coast Hospital and Health Service, or GCHHS).

Nest was instrumental in creating the Waijungbah Jarjums Service.

Meaning ‘a place for mothers and children’, Waijungbah Jarjums is a maternity health service which provides culturally safe care to First Nations patients by First Nations healthcare workers.

Waijungbah Jarjums Service was established through a $1.38 million grant provided by the Queensland Nurses and Midwives EB10 Innovation Fund through collaboration with the Queensland Nurses and Midwives Union and Queensland Health.

Nest applied for the grant with the assistance and mentorship of GCHHS Coordinator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Service, Melissa Browning, Griffith University’s Director of First Peoples Health Unit, Professor Roianne West, and guided by the experiences of mothers who had given birth at GCHHS.

With entirely First Nations staff, the service provides care from conception to the First 1,000 Days of life.

“To my knowledge this is, the first time a service has incorporated Birthing on Country and First 1,000 Days in one program. [It means] continued continuity of care which we know is crucial to improving health outcomes,” Nest said.

Birthing on Country and First 1,000 Days are concepts in nursing and midwifery which aim to support mothers and improve birth outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

According to the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, the first 1,000 days of a baby’s life refers to the period of development from conception to age two—when optimal health and growth outcomes can be established for both mother and baby.

“The model of care we developed and continue to develop, was made alongside the community­­—culturally safe care from a known midwife.”

“Community voices were and are the foundation—the community working group meets monthly.”

With the support of GCHHS Director of Women and Newborns, Hazel Brittain, GCHHS Director of Children’s Services, Susan Roth, and the program sponsor, Gold Coast Health’s Professor of Nursing and Midwifery, Dr Anita Bamford-Wade, Nest is able to continue her drive for change and provide culturally safe, quality maternal health care.

“The institutions aren’t telling us what we need, we are taking control of our own health and wellbeing and I feel so supported in that. It gives our mob a voice, gives them the chance to be self-determining,” Nest said.

“[It just shows] when you stay present and you know that your ancestors are behind you, guiding you—things always work out.”

In its 14th year, the 2020 HESTA Nursing and Midwifery Awards, will see the winner receive their share of the $30,000 prize pool. The winners will be announced on Wednesday May 6 and the ceremony will be delivered via video due to COVID-19 restrictions.

By Rachael Knowles