La Trobe alumnus, Andrew Cameron OAM, has worked as a nurse in some of the world’s most dangerous hotspots, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and at an Ebola Treatment Centre in Sierra Leone.
A male pioneer of the nursing profession, Cameron’s efforts have been recognised nationally, with the Order of Australia Medal, and internationally, with the rarely-awarded Florence Nightingale Medal.
Currently stationed at one of Australia’s most remote clinics, we spoke with Cameron about his incredible career so far; being an ‘object of curiosity’ in a female-dominated field; and on the many enriching opportunities open to nursing graduates.
Can you tell us about your experience working with the Red Cross in war-torn countries like Kenya, Sudan and Iraq? What drew you to this line of work?
I’ve been working on-and-off with the Red Cross for twelve years. I think the Red Cross is a great organisation that does a lot of good around the world. They’re entirely neutral, impartial and independent, and not so concerned about who’s right or wrong. They’re focused on helping people affected by war – whether it’s economically, socially, legally or health-wise.
The division I work for is dealing with victims of conflict. I go to warzones and help people who are far less fortunate than me. It can be a bit hairy at times, but the Red Cross always makes sure the delegates are protected.
They assess the situation every day, every hour, and evacuate you if the war comes too close. Being neutral and impartial, they’re very well-respected from all sides.
You also worked fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone, which was dangerous for a completely different reason. Do you ever have reservations about working in such perilous places?
Before going to Sierra Leone, I went with a team to Geneva to do infection, prevention and control training. We had to wash our hands 50 times a day and more, we weren’t allowed to touch anyone – not even to shake a colleague’s hand. We couldn’t even play cards because the cards you touch then go to the other person. The safety measures were very strict.
Sometimes I have reservations in such situations, but somebody’s got to do it. If nobody went or was too afraid to go, what sort of world would we be in? I think it’s good to help other people and do what you can. That’s’ what nursing is about.
While continuing to go on assignments with the Red Cross, you currently run one of Australia’s most remote clinics in Birdsville, QLD. What drew you to Birdsville?
I read about some nurses in Birdsville in a magazine about 30 years ago, it sounded like a really interesting place and I’d been hankering to work there ever since.
It’s right on the edge of the Munga-Thirri (Simpson Desert) National Park, and is about 700kms from the nearest hospital. You’re basically on your own. The doctor comes every two weeks for a few hours, so you have to deal with everything.
You get patients with every imaginable condition and injury, such as car roll-overs, sick children, old people with dementia, farm injuries, diabetic problems. The list goes on.
You’re quite a valued person in the community, along with the school principal and the policeman. You’re never lonely at all out here. Everyone knows everyone else and you’re always getting invited around for meals or cups of tea.
I think people can be lonelier in the middle of Melbourne sometimes.
You studied nursing and midwifery. What was it like starting out as a male in a female-dominated industry?
I started nursing 40 years ago. I was the only male in a class with 43 young ladies. I was the object of curiosity for quite a long time. At that time, a man couldn’t train as a midwife in New Zealand, so I came to Australia.
I thought that rule was a bit weird really, because half the obstetricians were men so why couldn’t you have a male midwife? Some people would say ‘you can’t be a midwife because you’ll never know what it’s like to have a child’ but half the women enrolled hadn’t had children. So, what’s the difference?
In Australia, I spent the first three months of my midwifery placement not really doing much because the midwife would go into a room and ask: ‘Mrs, Jones, there’s a male student midwife here. Do you want to have him today?’ The midwife would put doubt into the woman’s mind, so she’d say ‘oh, no thanks.’
After three months, this lovely midwife came back from long service leave. She saw I hadn’t had anything signed off in my workbook, so grabbed me by the shirt-sleeve and dragged me into the room. She said ‘Mrs Jones, this is Andrew, he is looking after you today’, and the woman would say ‘oh fine, that’s okay’ and so I got going. I was able to get everything signed off, and do examinations, palpations and deliveries.
What have you gotten out of a career in nursing? Why do you enjoy this field?
What I like about nursing is that it’s a career with so many possibilities. You can work in so many different environments, not just a hospital.
You can work on a mine site, in the military, with an organisation overseas, like Red Cross, CARE or Save the Children, for example. You can work in Aboriginal communities, remote communities like Birdsville or with the Flying Doctors. You could do a double degree in Paramedics.
In hospitals, there’s all different types of nursing you can do from intensive care to children’s, geriatrics to psychiatric. That’s why it’s so good: there’s so much variation and we’re all different. I think it’s important to try lots of areas and you’ll see what you gravitate towards.
Lastly, you’ve been honoured with an Order of Australia Media and the Florence Nightingale Medal ‘for exceptional courage and devotion to victims of armed conflict’. What do you think makes an outstanding nurse?
I think it’s someone who really cares about humanity, looking after people and helping them get better. A good nurse goes out of their way to go the extra yard for someone. You should care for every patient like they’re your mother, sister or daughter.
I really try hard. For example in Birdsville, I might see someone, then ring them either the next day or in three weeks’ time, however long is suitable, and see how they’re going. 99% of the time, people are really surprised that someone thought to call them as a courtesy. It’s the little things like that which really help.
Find out more about where studying Nursing at La Trobe can take you.