Community Champions for 2023

For the last few years, NAPWHA has acknowledged some of the unsung heroes in our midst. Many of them have contributed so much, sometimes over many years.

This year, we offered five categories and 18 nominations were received from around the country.

Heather Ellis and David Menadue had the pleasure of interviewing the successful nominees who each received their Community Champions Award at a ceremony hosted by Gilead Sciences Australia and New Zealand in Melbourne on November 24th.

Long Term Survivor

Geoff Harrison

Geoff has lived with HIV for almost forty years and over that time has contributed to the positive response in at least three states, as well as nationally since the early days of NAPWHA. In recent times, Geoff spearheaded the formation of a peer support group for local HIV-positive men. Called the Lismore Lads, what started as a handful of people coming to regular lunches now sees up to fifty people attend special events.

“When I came to Lismore over six years ago, there were no regular social supports for people with HIV,” he says, “but I knew there was a substantial positive population here, some of them feeling quite isolated.

“We started hosting lunches in a pub on the main street and each World AIDS Day we would hold an event to remember names of those locals we had lost over the years.

“Last year we had to suspend the lunches during the floods as we were totally inundated. The sexual health clinic and even the ACON office on the first floor were flooded.  Things are getting back to normal now and the network we established with the Lismore Lads has kept people in touch.”

Family

Judy Frecker

Judy has nursed people with HIV and AIDS since the early days at Fairfield Hospital in Melbourne. Over the years, she has supported so many that countless positive people and their families now regard her as a true community champion.

Judy takes it all in her stride and still works in the field as a Senior Nurse Consultant with the Royal Melbourne Hospital Infectious Disease Service. After Fairfield, she worked with the Royal District Nursing Service (now called Bolton Clarke), looking after people with HIV in their homes.

We particularly appreciate how challenging it was to work in the early days of HIV when there were no or inadequate treatments. Many were dying and the community at large didn’t understand HIV.

“Some people I knew thought we were putting ourselves at risk working there,” she says, “but I thought it was a special place and I have some lasting fond memories. And some sad ones, of course.

“I was never scared,” said Judy. “I trusted that the use of gloves and barrier nursing would protect me and we knew fairly early on that the transmission vectors were pretty much only blood and sex.  The environment was special in many ways—the relationships between medical and nursing staff and the HIV community and their families became very close. It was us against the virus.

“It changed the way people worked together in health. Other health disciplines have looked at those relationships from that time as the beginnings of greater community participation in health care.”

First Nations

Morgan Dempsey

Morgan is the Senior Indigenous Health Worker at Cairns Sexual Health Service and has worked in the area for 25 years.

Talking to Morgan, it is clear he is doing valuable work with the indigenous community. He has around 70 clients on his books. Many are homeless and living on the street with only him checking on their health, whether they are getting their HIV and other treatments, and reminding them of their doctor’s appointments.

Morgan has a team of other indigenous health care workers working with him, people who understand the cultural issues that these clients have and help prepare their clinicians for how to deal with these.

Recently, Morgan developed the Barbershop Project to encourage young indigenous men to regularly test for HIV and STIs. The incentive is a free haircut if they enrol. While in the barber’s chair they also get a bit of education about how to look after their health. All the barbers have been trained by Morgan and his team.  Sometimes, a pop-up clinic is setup opposite the barber shops to provide testing.

Morgan has also spent many years helping to run a conference for sexual health workers in Queensland called the Deadly Sex Congress.

Regional and Rural Champion

Andrew Buggie

When Andrew returned to the Northern Rivers in 2016, the move was motivated by much more than a tree-change, Andrew was returning home.

“I grew up and later studied nursing here,” he says.  “I recognise the need for health care services in regional areas.”

Andrew has years of nursing experience, including many with HIV. It was as a young gay man in Sydney in the 1990s when Andrew developed his desire to work ‘in community’.

“The strength and solidarity of the community was awe-inspiring,” he remembers, “and the trauma of that time just as profound.

“In those dark days of HIV, people quit or lost their jobs, liquidated their assets and moved to quiet regional towns like Lismore for a healthy lifestyle in what they thought were their last days,’ he says.

Today, in places like Lismore, there is a disproportionate number of HIV long-term survivors.

“Many of them have complex co-morbidities and carry so much past trauma as well. They have lost friends, lovers and came close to death themselves,” he says.

Andrew is the only full-time nurse who, together with two part-timers, services 400 clients living with HIV across Lismore and Tweed Sexual Health. GPs don’t have the time for anything that resembles person-centred care, so Andrew and his colleagues are in high demand.

Along with HIV treatment needs, clients are also dealing with isolation, loneliness, trauma, and often financial disadvantage.  With Andrew’s extensive experience and practical knowledge of HIV care, he supports his clients see life from a more ‘positive’ perspective.

“Giving an HIV positive diagnosis is always a challenging experience,” he says.

“The fear is usually devastating and the stigma they feel is often internalised or self-enacted. I tell them HIV is just one more thing about yourself that you didn’t know yesterday.

“I try and challenge my clients to see that there are options open to them to lead a full life,” he says.

Andrew is honoured to be chosen as a NAPWHA Community Champion. He hopes this accolade will raise awareness of the need for equitable healthcare for all people in regional and rural areas and the critical role that nurses play.

“There are many great HIV nurses in Australia. We need to push for them to become nurse practitioners who can prescribe and improve access to HIV care and HIV prevention. “

Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Champion

Vikas Parwani

When Vikas attended his first Sydney Mardi Gras in 2011, it was as an international law student from Pakistan. This fateful event set him on his path as an immigration lawyer assisting people with HIV to navigate the Australian system.

“I saw this HALC banner and I wanted to see what they do,” he says, “Then everything fell into place.” It was not long after he finished his law degree, that Vikas heard HALC was looking for a volunteer.

Vikas arrived in Australia in 2010 and received his Juris Doctor from UNSW in 2012. It was at HALC where Vikas received his practical legal training. He began working at HALC as a solicitor in 2016.

After graduating, the opportunity arrived, through a former HALC colleague, to assist asylum seekers on Manus Island. After this, Vikas, who already had an economics degree, found himself working in financial services law, but found the work unfulfilling

Vikas is now the senior solicitor at HALC and has practiced immigration law for over ten years. He has assisted hundreds of people living with HIV to navigate Australia’s very complicated immigration system.

“Some of my clients have been with me for several years, stuck in limbo. What motivates me is when a client, after these long waits, is able to get their visa. That is a very good feeling, knowing the hardships they have been through,” he says.

Vikas wants to raise awareness of the important immigration legal work that HALC does, but also how their work helps reduce stigma and hopefully through that, a reduction in HIV transmission rates, especially amongst international students.

“We advise a lot of international students on why it is important to know your status and to get tested.  For any permanent visa, an HIV test is required. And if it is positive, then the visa is likely refused and their options become much more limited.

“The visa process becomes much more difficult. But if people are tested and know their status, there they can plan early and get on the correct path,” Vikas says.

The HIV AIDS Legal Centre (HALC), based in NSW, is a not-for-profit, specialist community legal centre, and the only one of its kind in Australia, Nearly 70 per cent of HALC clients are culturally and linguistically diverse. HALC also produces the Positive Migration Guide

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