Michelle Black is sitting in the student union; black shirt with a crisp collar, red lips, cropped fringe, looking every bit the architect and academic she once was. But hear her speak, and she’s all nurse now.
Michelle says the qualities that made her successful in her former profession – the listening skills, the intuition and care for how people live – are serving her well as a nurse. Only this time, there are no walls.
It’s been no easy feat to change her life, but the hard-won lessons have given Michelle a story, and you’re going to want to hear it.
“My message for any woman I come into contact with is, keep yourself skilled,” she says. “Keep yourself qualified. Because you just never know what’s around the corner. If you have that, you have the ability to get up and move on.”
Despite already having two degrees and a professional career as an architect and lecturer, four years ago Michelle found herself on the cusp of an uncertain future. “I hit the floor,” she says. “A lot of things converged in my life, they just sort of happened.”
In her mid-40s Michelle became a carer to her mum, her relationship ended, and along with it, her business partnership. Michelle had managed an architectural firm with her former partner.
“I went from something very secure, to not having a home,” she says. “To having to find a rental for my son, my mum and myself. You’re very exposed, as a woman. The legacy of that is that you can find you don’t have a lot and you have to make a decision, do you become a victim of this? Or do you take a step back and decide you have enough resilience to get through it?”
Michelle decided the latter.
She’d completed a carers course to equip her for looking after her mum. That small taste of the health care system ignited an interest, which led to some casual work at a hospital, which led to studying a Bachelor of Nursing (Graduate Entry) at La Trobe’s Bendigo Campus.
“There was part of me that asked, am I going to get to the end of years of study and find that no one is going to employ a 50-year-old woman? I was making a big step going from something that I knew would give me a wage to something I would spend three years on, get a HECS debt for, and perhaps find there was nothing for me at the end of it.”
Before enrolling Michelle spoke with nursing lecturer Therese Worme about her concerns. “After that hour meeting, I knew, I’m going to go for it,” she says. “There were nine graduate entry places. I had to undergo a series of exams, interviews and tests. I was lucky to be one of nine and I found myself lucky enough to be sitting in class with very young people.
“So I was learning again, writing essays, navigating technology and blended learning. I thought, what! This is the new world… Uploading, downloading, Zoom lectures… with the aid of my son, who’s really good at IT, I was starting to venture into this whole new world, and I was doing it. I progressively found myself able to do everything that the class was doing, and I didn’t feel so out of touch. It restored a lot of my self-worth, that I still had the ability to learn and be challenged and achieve.”
A pivotal moment for Michelle occurred halfway through the course, during the uni break.
“I went to Uluru with my son and when it came time to leave I found myself at the airport, crying,” she says. “Whilst everybody almost couldn’t wait to get out of there, looking at their phones, I was just in tears, looking out, thinking, something happened. Something connected me to it. I don’t know what it was, but it didn’t want me to go.”
Michelle returned to uni to start the Indigenous and Intercultural unit, during which she learnt about The Purple House, an Indigenous-owned-and-operated health service in Alice Springs. She wrote to them and six months later, flew back to Alice to do two weeks’ volunteer work with the service.
“It was one of the most incredible, life-changing experiences,” she says. “And that was my entrée, the beginning of my exchange and learning with Indigenous people.
“We can sit here and no one would know what’s going on up there. In some ways it’s a lost world, but when you enter that world, the generosity that comes from Indigenous people, you have to experience it. They are very generous. They have wisdom. And they’re welcoming.”
Michelle also spent a week travelling. “I drove to the Kings Canyon, I walked the 6km circuit in 40-degree heat. I wanted to put myself in that environment to see how I would feel, as a single person, by myself. Can I endure this? Do I fit? Can I fit? And then I just fell in love with this place. And I thought, when I get a nursing qualification, I can take it anywhere.”
Back at La Trobe Michelle and others started to enquire about completing placement in the Northern Territory, and as a result, in 2018 the first nursing placement positions were made available with Flinders University’s NT campus.
Although Michelle didn’t receive a place at first, her passion was rewarded with a two-week placement at Katherine District Hospital.
“My word,” she says. “Another incredible experience. I spent time in specialist clinics, ophthalmology, cardiac-related clinics and oncology, where people were traveling 600km in a plane, coming in for the clinic, before having to be on that plane at 4.30 to be back in their community. It’s such a different world.
“I was very lucky that I could spend time with spouses and extended family and hear their stories. The journey they had taken in order to have their therapy close to their community really opened my eyes to the challenges remote health faces. I wouldn’t know that down here.”
Michelle also spent time with female Indigenous elders, who she weaved and yarned with. She saw her first birth.
In 2019 she attended the annual Garma Festival, a four-day celebration of Yolngu culture in remote East Arnhem Land.
“It was just a feast of discourse, colour, sound, poetry and storytelling,” Michelle says. “And one of the most wonderful things as a woman was, one morning, I heard the zippers going up – you stay in tents – and all of the women quietly came out of the darkness and started drifting towards this spot, then you could hear the women Aboriginal elders starting to sing. You had to get there before the dawn broke. They wait to hear the first bird, and then they start singing traditional songs, welcoming the day.
“I felt like I was starting to connect once again, with nature, and myself. It changes you. If you allow it. I started to open myself. Once you open yourself to new things, open your eyes, your ears, your heart, wonderful things come to you. People. Opportunities. It just happens, and it’s happened for me. I reframed my life.”
Michelle completed her degree last year and began applying for graduate nursing positions. She received a competitive place at the Bendigo Hospital, and half an hour later, an even more competitive one in Alice Springs.
She’s now preparing to start her grad year in Alice in July. “Ultimately I’d like to be a remote area nurse and Alice Springs is the place I need to go,” she says. “I’ve bought myself a 4WD and I’m going. Another crazy thing I’m doing is learning to fly a plane. I’m just taking off. There are no boundaries anymore.”