Community led health in Australia’s Indigenous remote communities

Submitted by Purple House
June 26, 2020

Before the Purple House was established Pintupi people from the Western Desert of Central Australia were forced to leave their families and traditional lands to seek treatment for end-stage renal failure. Far from home, they suffered great loneliness and hardship, and weren’t around to pass on cultural knowledge in their communities. So they decided to do something about it.

In 2000 leading artists from these communities developed an extraordinary series collaborative paintings which were auctioned at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. They raised over $1 million which was used to start the Western Desert Nganampa Walytja Palyantjaku Tjutaku Aboriginal Corporation, now called Purple House. Purple House now provides permanent dialysis units in 18 remote communities across three states, delivered within a new model of care based around family, country and compassion. They also have a mobile dialysis unit called the Purple Truck. Covered in stunning artwork from the communities it serves, the Purple Truck can be seen tearing across the Australian desert!

Run from its headquarters in Alice Springs (in the centre of Australia) Purple House’s mission is ‘Making all our families well’. Flexibility and cultural safety are at the heart of the organisation, and their model is so successful it’s often referenced as the ‘Purple House way’. Purple House nurses running dialysis units live and work in some of the most remote areas in Australia. It is a truly unique experience which provides life changing opportunities to learn culture and become part of the community. Their desert backyards are also like no where else!

Remote area nurse Sarah. Brown AM, was hired as the first employee and CEO of Purple House 17 years ago. She says her first jobs were to develop a constitution and get the organisation non-profit status. A fearless advocate for high quality, community-led healthcare for Indigenous Australians, Sarah has invested three decades of her life in this work. She holds a Master of Nursing, a Graduate Diploma in Aboriginal Education and a Graduate Diploma in Health Service Management. Prior to joining Purple House, Sarah worked as a remote area nurse in communities across Australia and as a university lecturer.

In June 2020 Sarah was recognised as a member of the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday 2020 Honours List “for significant service to community health, to remote area nursing, and to the Indigenous community”. In 2017 she was Hesta Australia’s Nurse of the Year and in 2018 made the Australian Financial Review’s BOSS magazine’s ‘True Leaders’ list.

Purple House is entirely Indigenous-run and owned with an all-Indigenous Board of Directors. For almost two decades Sarah has worked with the Directors to expand the number of communities that Purple House serves and works with an ever more diverse set of language and cultural groups. The constant call from new communities who want their people to be able to stay on country for dialysis has turned Sarah into a highly successful fundraiser. She is always finding innovative new ways to secure new support through government philanthropic and self-generated funds.

Central Australia has gone from having the worst to best survival rates for dialysis in Australia, and just as importantly more and more patients are getting back home so that families and culture can remain strong. As one former-director said, “Anangu like the open space of their land, where they can smell the Spirit, the wildflowers and other plants. They want fire for the smell of wood smoke going through the air. They want to smell the flowers after rain.”

The stunning desert landscape inspires Sarah’s painting, as she is not only a nurse and CEO but a successful artist whose work has been exhibited nationally and internationally. However, her fiercest passion is the people and communities she works for. They provide the inspiration to keep fighting for funding and opportunities that will ensure more Indigenous Australians on dialysis can be home on country with their families.