Shocking Hospital Ordeal Exposed During Victoria’s Truth-Telling Inquiry, Raises Serious Concerns Over Cultural Safety in Healthcare

Ballarat, Australia — A traumatic event at a local hospital involving Sissy Austin, a former member of the First Peoples’ Assembly, has sparked outrage and a formal investigation by the Victorian health department. Austin, 30, a Gunditjmara woman, was left to fend for herself at Ballarat Base Hospital after suffering severe head injuries from a violent assault during an afternoon run in the nearby forest.

Following the assault which occurred early last year, Austin recounted her harrowing experience at the hospital during the Yoorrook Justice Commission’s truth-telling inquiry. The commission, led by Aboriginal Victorians, is examining the enduring effects of colonization and current injustices within Victoria’s health, housing, and education systems.

According to Austin, hospital staff disregarded her condition; she was vomiting and disoriented due to her head injuries. Despite these symptoms, she was left unattended, exacerbating her sense of vulnerability and fear. In her desperation and confusion, Austin said she was allowed to leave the hospital at 1 a.m. after hastily signing what she only later understood to be a ‘discharge at your own risk’ form.

This situation has called attention to how hospitals handle patients with head injuries, especially those from the Indigenous community. Victoria’s Health Minister Mary-Anne Thomas, who testified at the inquiry, condemned the treatment Austin received as “completely and utterly unacceptable” and indicative of broader systemic issues.

Experts say that Ms. Austin’s case underscores the critical need for health care systems to be culturally sensitive and responsive, particularly to the needs of Indigenous populations who statistically leave hospitals against medical advice at higher rates than non-Indigenous Australians. According to The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), Indigenous Australians were five times more likely to leave hospital against medical advice between 2019-20 and 2020-21.

The commission heard that Austin’s horrific treatment could have been avoided if cultural competency and sensitivity were integral to the hospital’s protocols. Commissioner Sue-Anne Hunter expressed shock and dismay at the neglect Austin endured, emphasizing the serious consequences such failures can impose on the community’s trust and the wellbeing of individuals.

In response to these incidents, the Victorian health department has vowed to scrutinize the circumstances surrounding Austin’s discharge from the hospital. It emphasizes a commitment to improving health outcomes and ensuring cultural safety for all Indigenous patients.

Furthermore, community leaders urge that this case be a catalyst for substantive reforms throughout Victoria’s health system. They emphasize that realistic solutions need to address the root causes of cultural insensitivity and systemic racism apparent in current practices.

As the inquiry proceeds, Austin has also taken formal action, lodging a complaint with Grampian Health, which manages the hospital, and continuing her dialogue with local authorities to stress the gravity of her situation and the need for accountability and change. In her recovery journey, she insists that change is imperative not just for her but for all Aboriginal people who seek medical care.

Reflecting on her ordeal, Austin revealed that while her physical injuries have healed, the emotional trauma and systemic disregard she faced at Ballarat Base Hospital linger, highlighting a critical gap in care that extends beyond an individual’s immediate medical needs to their right to dignity and respect.