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Sharryn Batt

Sharryn Batt: Registered Nurse, a Mother, an Australian Army Reservist and a Curtin University Health Promotion student

I am a Registered Nurse, a Mother, an Australian Army Reservist and a Curtin University Health Promotion student.

In November 2005, a soldier walked into my office to ask me about the health effects of lead in ammunition. I replied to him honestly, that I knew it was a heavy metal and a cumulative poison but that was about it and promised that I would find out more for him.

In December my husband (a Murdoch Science Student), brought home a 2005 lead review article. As I read it, I realised I needed to do something. I just wasn’t sure how to do it, so I started searching for journal articles, talking to people, taking blood samples and collecting pathology reports. These things just seemed like logical things to do. I later found out that this was actually part of what is called a ‘needs assessment’!

I discovered that lead can adversely affect almost every organ and system of the human body, even at relatively low levels. At higher levels, lead has the potential to kill. Lead has also recently been classified as a group 2A Carcinogen by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. The main source of lead in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is found in ammunition, and this poses highest risk to personnel who shoot ammunition in indoor firing ranges. Fortunately, exposure to and absorption of lead is preventable through health promotion!

When my semester one distance learning package arrived for Health Promotion Planning 681, I couldn’t believe my luck, it was perfect timing. I knew immediately that this was going to teach me what to do! The usual feeling of panic upon reading the unit outline and assessment requirements (wondering what topic I should choose) wasn’t there. I already knew what I wanted to do, and I felt excited!

I started developing a health promotion program and continued this during Health Promotion Methods 682 (semester two 2006). In Evaluation of Health Promotion 687 (semester one 2007), I learnt about all of the things relating to evaluation that I should have done better during program planning but didn’t! I am going back to improve some areas at the moment, now that I know so much more about evaluation!

Health Promotion is quite new to the ADF and unfortunately the ADF does not employ designated Health Promotion Practitioners. The first infiltration of health promotion for ADF members became evident in 2001 with the introduction of an Annual Health Assessment system which includes annual medicals (hearing, eyesight, blood pressure etc) and one-on-one lifestyle counselling (smoking, alcohol, nutrition etc). However, the health workers who are required to provide this lifestyle counselling generally do not have specific training in this area and so it is mostly avoided or not delivered very effectively.

The ADF does not routinely use the term ‘health promotion’, but rather ‘health and safety’ and ‘preventative medicine’. When I started this process, the ADF did not have a health policy regarding lead. So when I came along with my Inorganic Lead Health Promotion Program (even though I didn’t think it was very good as I was really still learning my way) it immediately gained some attention. So much that I flew to Canberra in May to receive the 2007 Army Safety Award from the ‘Chief of Army’ Lieutenant General Peter Leahy, and again in June to receive the 2007 Defence Safety Award from the ‘Chief of Defence Force’ ACM Angus Houston and the Minister Assisting the Defence Minister Bruce Billison for ‘the Best Individual Contribution to Health and Safety’.

I have recently been advised that I am now a finalist for the Commonwealth Government Safety Award to be awarded this October in the Great Hall of Parliament House, Canberra. In August, a Comcare selection team visited me with a film crew to conduct an interview and look at how the health promotion program has been implemented in my workplace.

I cannot begin to explain just how much I have learnt from studying Health Promotion at Curtin and how much this whole experience has changed my life. Having the expertise, support and feedback from my lecturers and tutors was fantastic. Virtually everything I learnt in theory, I later experienced in practice. From learning that men are a hard target group to reach (even more so when their job is dangerous and they face life threatening risks on a daily basis) to the fact that you can’t expect behaviour change if the target group does not have the resources they need to actually change their behaviour and the policies to support them, and so much more. Studying has also helped to me really understand the people I work with (my target group) so that now it is much easier to accept them and how they react and respond to health promotion strategies and the process of change.

It has been 18 months of ups and downs, frustration and exhilaration. It was a battle, it was never easy and it continues. There is still so much more to be done as we now have an ADF policy, but it is virtually impossible for the soldiers to adhere to some of its requirements because they have not been given the appropriate resources. I keep thinking of how relevant that ‘ecological perspective of health’ diagram (stuck on my office door) is, and that I cannot give up on influencing that whole picture for so many reasons.

Apart from my professional obligation, I will do this because the soldiers that I care so much about, after initial (understandable) resistance, have really taken an interest in this program, and because the soldier that first asked me to find out about lead and who was so much help and support to me for the first 12 months of the program, was killed doing his job in the Pacific Ocean last year. This was absolutely devastating to me. I still can’t talk about him and just how important he was to me throughout this experience without getting ridiculously emotional! It has however, made me even more determined to make this successful for his colleagues. One day however, I would like to move out of the ADF and into civilian health promotion as my current job can be really heart wrenching.

Until then, thank you Curtin University, for giving me these new skills and continuing to develop them. I am almost scared to finish studying in 2009. Where will I get my ideas to try out on the ADF from then?