Above: Dr Tracey McDonald
By Yasmin Noone
Last Christmas, Australian Catholic University’s Professor Tracey McDonald was beaming from ear-to-ear. It wasn’t because she was anticipating a holiday or looking forward to an annual celebration. It was because she had a secret – one which could not be revealed until Australia Day last week.
Around a fortnight out from the turn of the new year, the public health and social policy expert, experienced nurse and current RSL LifeCare Chair of Ageing was notified by the Council for the Order of Australia (the Australian Government) that she would be honoured in the Australia Day 2012 Honours List, and pick up an extra two letters after her name: AM.
The Member of the Order of Australia (AM) title would be awarded to Professor McDonald in recognition of her devoted service to nursing and aged care through advisory roles with the United Nations Expert Groups, and to the development of public health and social welfare policy.
But like all other honour list recipients, Dr McDonald was sworn to confidentiality.
“Late last year I was sent an email telling me that I had been nominated. It asked me, if I was to [win], would I accept?” Professor McDonald said.
“I was travelling at the time so when I got the email I was sitting in this little internet café in an American town. I was trying to read this highly confidential email and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness!’ I sent an email back saying I would accept.
“Then, about a week before Christmas I got a letter saying I would be awarded an AM. I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone so, without mentioning why, I had a barbeque on Australia Day at home with family and some very good friends.”
That was when the good news came out.
“It was wonderful. There was a lot of shaking the newspaper [with my name in it and details of the award] and squealing.
“I was absolutely thrilled. I was stunned, actually.
“I haven’t really come to terms with the actual magnitude of it yet. I’m not sure what I will do with it,” she said with a laugh of excitement. “Probably in about a month, I will have processed it all.”
This AM, she said, would have been unattainable were it not for her “team” of nurses and aged care professionals throughout the country.
“The fact that the [council] awarded an AM to a nurse and someone working in aged care is great for the industry and nursing as a whole.
“I really do acknowledge that the award is not just for me but for these two areas of public service that do really good work. No one does anything alone. [I’ve done it] with the help of wonderfully dedicated nurses…who are always trying to do the best for people.
“…They are in there fighting too. Everyone is fighting for the same ultimate end, for people to have access to quality health care. That’s what we all want. Everyone’s working towards that.
“This award says that the Australian public appreciates what I’m doing and what we’re doing in aged care and what we, as nurses, are doing.”
Modest about her achievements to-date, Professor McDonald maintains an extensive list of credits.
Naming only a few of her many appointments, she has been the chair of the Faculty of Health and Wellness in Ageing at the Royal College of Nursing, Australia (RCNA) since 2009; the RCNA representative to the National Aged Care Alliance in 2008; an expert representative to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs since 2006; and is currently a member of the Aged Care Standards and Accreditation Agency quality panel.
But more important than any title is spirit – and Dr McDonald believes in what she does, vehemently.
“My passion is [to advance] the rights of older people, the general public and people who are disadvantaged. And I will keep on doing whatever I can to ensure that in policy frameworks, legislation and even within 20 metres from where I’m standing, things are done differently, and no one is at a [disadvantage].”
Recalling a moment which she said probably moved her fate in an alternate direction, the professor stressed the importance of speaking up against that which is wrong and promoting what is right.
“I was standing up at an international conference [in 2006]. Most of the other speakers were lamenting the fact that there were so many old people and because they were not dying, they [came with an] economic burden.
“I stood up, came on stage, put my paper away and then let them have it about older people and their longevity being a success story.
“All the work we’ve done [to acheive] clean water, stable governments…and [longevity] means it’s working. This is a success story. To have a chronological point where we dismiss people is madness.
“I probably didn’t pull any punches. When I sat down, this fellow came down and sat next to me. He said, ‘we need to talk’. He was from the United Nations Social Policy Unit.
“And that’s where I got my entry into the UN expert groups I’ve been involved in.”
Looking towards the future, Professor McDonald strongly backs the need for aged care reform. More work is also needed to push the nursing profession further along, she said, although it has come a long way in recent years.
“I think we can be much more innovative. Nurses are the most talented multi-tasking, insightful, supportive group of health care workers that you can ever imagine.
“We must also acknowledge what they do [as they don’t seek acknowledgement themselves].
“The work they do makes a real difference in people’s lives and it often goes unnoticed.
“We tend to be a little bit invisible in the general public but people who have been a nurse know the difference their work makes to people’s lives and to their recovery.
“That’s where our support has come from.”