For some, having a baby at an early age may end career plans. Not so for Tiarnah Checker. ‘My daughter Delilah is my greatest motivation to achieve,’ she says. And with the help of the Aspen Medical Foundation, Tiarnah is achieving her dream.
‘I had her when I was 15 and returned to grade 11 at school after giving birth.’
One of eight children – ‘I’m slap bang in the middle’ – Tiarnah is about to graduate as a registered nurse and is the first in her family to go to university. ‘My mother raised us as a single mother. She always supported and encouraged me. She wanted me to have a better future.’
Tiarnah’s reason for studying nursing is twofold.
‘I’m passionate about caring for people and I wanted to enter a field where I could do that.
‘Coming from an Indigenous background, I’d like to remove the stigma of healthcare. People may relate a hospital with end of life and, to some extent, racism.
‘First Nations people may avoid hospitals as they don’t feel safe there or believe traditional ways are better.’
Born in Ipswich, home to the Yagara people of Queensland, Tiarnah attended school there and also in Laidley, before going to Griffith University.
‘Healthcare is essential for everyone, and I want indigenous people to feel respected, have appropriate care and improved outcomes. Prevention and regular health checks are important.’
‘I tell people what mob I come from so they can trust me. I listen to them and watch their body language. There’s no hierarchy, I’m the same as them, we’re both people.’
Tiarnah says she wants to change healthcare for the better. ‘I’ve seen Indigenous people put down. I’ve seen those coming in regularly, with drug and alcohol problems, not receiving the best healthcare. Healthcare can change with your skin colour.
‘And we need to acknowledge people’s feelings. I tell people about other services, such as 13YARN telephone counselling (13 92 76).
‘Some have family from the Stolen Generation and that trauma can be passed down. Others have had to move away from family because of drugs or alcohol and now have no connection with country and feel isolated.’
It means a lot to Tiarnah to be a First Nations nurse, all the more so because many thought she wouldn't achieve much in her life.
‘Yes, it was an adjustment having a child so young, and being a single mother. But my mum helped out in the first year and now I have a balanced routine. I studied when Delilah was at childcare and asleep at night. She’s now almost 9 years old and is proud of me, as are all my family.’
Tiarnah has overcome many challenges to get to where she is now. ‘I’m not in contact with my Aboriginal father and some people said I’m too white to be Aboriginal. So, I felt I lacked belonging and had to build up my sense of identity. It’s been great to engage with the GUMURRII Student Success Unit at Griffith University. They provide extra support, a private study room, and someone to talk to so you don’t feel alone.’
She says she’s a ‘hands-on learner’ and sometimes struggled with literacy. ‘Assignments would take me longer than others and I was really upset when I failed one. But I did a supplementary and learnt from that experience. You can have hard times and hurdles, but it just helps you build your character more.’
Soon to graduate, Tiarnah says a $10,000 scholarship from the Aspen Medical Foundation helped relieve some of the stress of her final, third, year. ‘I’m so grateful for that. I put the money straight onto HECS, my tertiary education fee. So now I don’t have to worry so much about finances.’
Tiarnah says she was fortunate enough to spend a month in Vietnam, in March 2023, on an international clinical placement. It was her first time overseas. ‘From a nurse’s perspective, I came back thinking how priviliged we are here in Australia, with free healthcare, high standards, and patient ratios.
‘Over there, medication and health practitioners are limited. People mainly eat rice, they don’t have much meat or vegetables as they are poor. They’re malnourished and a lot of the children are sick.
‘We set up pop-up clinics and worked alongside interpreters and pharmacists, giving medication they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to afford.’ This was thanks to the thousands of dollars Griffiths University students had raised.
‘The highlight of my trip was being in theatre for the first time’, says Tiarnah. ‘I observed a C-section and handed the baby girl to her father two minutes after she was born. Just seeing the family cry with joy was brilliant.’
Tairnah intends to do further study, specialising in paediatrics, and then work as an emergency nurse at the Queensland Children’s Hospital.
Her other ambition is to let her daughter know she can achieve anything she wants to. And Delilah already has plans.
Says Tiarnah, ‘She’s told me, when she’s older, she wants to be a nurse, just like her mum.’