Sandra (Sandie) Pott remembers 2001 vividly, the year she and her young family immigrated to Australia. The year her life “began again.”
Prior to then she had been a nurse and a midwife, the mum of two young girls and a baby boy, the wife of a farmer.
She was born a Rhodesian, and became a Zimbabwean in 1980 – a fifth generation Zimbabwean of European descent, born and raised alongside her fellow African countrymen in a searing country of intense beauty and equally intense politics; Politics that would eventually escalate into a madness that turned neighbours into enemies and white Zimbabweans into targets of racial hatred.
Hatred that turned Sandie’s world upside down, forcing her and her young family to leave those they loved and everything they had worked so hard for behind and try to reconstruct their lives in a new country half a world away.
But before that, Sandie had already enjoyed her share of life experiences.
“I trained to be a nurse in South Africa and graduated in 1987, then graduated from midwifery in 1989,” Sandie recalls. “I didn’t always want to be a nurse – I wanted to teach, but my mum was a nurse and she suggested I do that, so I started nursing and loved it from day one.”
She has been nursing ever since, working in the neonatal Intensive Care Unit (ICU) before moving to Johannesburg, in palliative care in Zimbabwe and then London at the height of the AIDS epidemic. “I did a lot of AIDS nursing while I was in London, then moved to midwifery and worked in Europe before going home to Zimbabwe in 1991.”
It was there that Sandie, who had come from a farming family, met her husband Gary, also a farmer, and they married in 1993. Their three children, Robyn, Nancy and James, followed between 1995 and 2000. Life was good. They were living and working on a farm that had belonged to Gary’s parents but that they’d been paying off for a decade.
Political unrest had been brewing for a few years, although no one could have foreseen the intensity of the storm.
“Zimbabwe received independence in 1980 and was a completely self-sufficient, landlocked country that grew everything it needed for many years,” Sandie remembers. “Ten years after independence the economy was not as it should be.”
Government services ground to a standstill, roads started to deteriorate and with the AIDS epidemic claiming one in four Zimbabweans, people were becoming desperate. Sandi began proactively trying to improve things in the local farms and villages, setting up preschools and health clinics in conjunction with Save the Children UK.
It made little difference in the end. A government ad in the newspaper was all the notice that the Potts – and other white farmers like them – received that their farms would be taken from them in just a couple of weeks.
“Just like that we had lost our farm. We lost it in September, and paid our last instalment to my husband’s parents in October that year, so we never actually owned the farm outright because we had been paying it off for more than ten years and weren’t compensated for anything,” Sandie says quietly. “They took all our equipment, our home, the farm – the whole business.”
Despite this, Sandie believes her family were among the lucky ones. “People were losing their lives over it – we watched friends and family die. We were beaten up, given death threats every day and in one instance my mum and I had a really bad beating in her home with my babies sleeping in the same house – so we had our share of bad things.”
Having to quickly “make other arrangements,” Sandie says she was fortunate enough to be admitted to Australia because of her nursing skills. “Nursing has been a real lifeline for us as a family because that is what paid the bills here and enabled us to start a new life again which was hard especially at the age of 40,” she says. “We were very established there with everything we could want and it was all taken away in an instant, so we have learned not to take anything for granted.”
With their kids aged five, four and a year-old baby in tow, the Potts arrived in a country that they thought was “very much like ours because it spoke English,” but were surprised to find the cultures were actually “so different.”
The Sunshine Coast was their destination and they settled in Wombye which was more “bush,” and what they were “used to.”
“Life began again in 2001 for us and we’ve been on the Coast ever since,” Sandie says. “We had to just get on with life without looking back too much. When you’ve had your life threatened you try not to look back on that but focus on the positives every day. We still have our lives to carry on living when friends of ours weren’t as fortunate and that’s a lot to be grateful for. We are very grateful to Australia for giving us that chance.”
Sandie started her nursing career in Australia at Selangor Private Hospital first as a midwife and then working on the medical ward. She then moved on to Cittamani and began a real interest in palliative care having also been instrumental in setting up the Palliative Care Unit at Selangor.
Her path then led to the Sunshine Coast Palliative Care Services where she has worked as a Clinical Nurse for six years. A community outreach role, Sandie is part of a team that covers all the private and public hospitals, domiciliary nursing services as well as nursing homes on the Sunshine Coast, from the Glasshouse Mountains to Tin Can Bay and right into the Hinterland.
She has become an instrumental part of a team that is making a big difference to the quality of palliative care on the Sunshine Coast through “engaging with the community and stakeholders to help people get the at-home end of life care they want.”
With the financial support of Wishlist, Sandi recently finalised a project called PalliApp, based on preventing palliative admissions to hospital. “I identified early on that a main reason people come in to hospital is because their carers can’t cope with what’s happening at home and didn’t have enough resources, information and backup to help,” Sandi explained. “As a result, we developed a rapid response carer’s pack including simple things like a magnetic card to go on the fridge with a prioritised list of who to contact if something should happen.”
The PalliApp project has gone on to win awards and caught the attention of the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) who offered Sandi the opportunity to study for her Masters.
Like many busy mums, Sandi said she had wanted to study for a few years but put it on the back burner due to time and financial commitments. So when USC approached her, Sandi said she originally didn’t think it was possible.
First there was the matter of her qualifying. “When I studied nursing it wasn’t University based – it was hospital based. Because of that I didn’t have an undergraduate degree, but the Uni kept asking me to do the Masters and said with my nursing education and experience I fully met the criteria.”
Then there was the financial hurdle, an obstacle that was greatly helped along by an unexpected $5,000 scholarship Sandi received from Wishlist thanks to the annual Mike Kelly Academic Scholarship which awards one worthy recipient with the means to help further their University or TAFE studies.
When Sandi discovered she had won the scholarship, she said the feeling was overwhelming and the tears still flow when talking about it.
“In a way it feels like a lot of good things are starting to happen to us, a reward for working hard,” she said. “The past year has really made me feel like I have changed lives and been able to improve and grow the palliative care service, giving equity to everybody who should have the right and the choice to have care at home at the end of their life – the option most people want.
“I’ve always liked social justice and making sure people are okay, and palliative care is special because it’s not like many other areas of nursing where you can make people better, because you actually can’t. But you can improve their quality of life now through empowering people to get the care they want and need, and if I can do that by just one percent then I’ve made a big difference.”
Sandi is realistic in her understanding of the challenge facing her and acknowledges that completing the Masters won’t be a walk in the park. “It is a huge learning curve and it will require endless amounts of study,” she said.
“Then again, I’m not afraid of anything – we’ve been to hell and back.”