Kathy Eager is a force to be reckoned with. Being thrust into the chaos of the Western Sydney refugee and migrant intake of the 1980s instilled in her an infallible confidence and unshakeable ‘can-do’ attitude that has remained with her ever since. Daisy Loomes reports.
Kathy Eager was introduced to death at an early age. She is Irish, she reminds me, and the Irish love to talk about death.
As a child Kathy would be taken to strangers’ funerals by her grandmother. It’s an odd confession, but Kathy explains that she saw it as an effective, if unconventional way to introduce her grandchildren to death. Each time her grandmother would offer sincere; yet vaguely inappropriate condolences to the family of the deceased.
‘‘Oh well, it’s very sad,’’ Kathy remembers her grandmother saying to a man who had lost his mother. ‘‘But look at it this way; now you can go to the orphans’ picnic!’’
The bizarre part of this interaction, in the mind of her eight-year-old self, was the idea that a grown man could be an orphan.
Today, Kathy makes a point of doing similar for the children of her friends and family. She likes to walk them through the nearby Wombarra Cemetery, a serene spot overlooking the sea. Kathy reassures them they shouldn’t fear the bodies in the graves. After all, she tells them, ‘It’s the live ones that’ll get you’.
Kathy’s colourful, matter-of-fact attitude, is evident in all aspects of her life. She talks with me in her Wombarra home, a neat and cosy dwelling perched high in the trees of the Illawarra escarpment. The house is surprisingly free of any physical signs of her work; there’s not a document or computer in sight.
Later, she takes me out to the verandah and shows me her ‘‘office house’’, as she calls it, tucked into the lower corner of her property. She bought the adjoining block simply because it was due to be developed into a multi-storey building and she didn’t want to lose her view of the ocean. The small flat is the only place she works, outside of the nearby University of Wollongong where she is the Senior Director and Professor at that Australian Health Research Institute (ASHRI.)
‘‘Coming here is like a little refuge,’’ she says looking out over the treetops, towards the flat blue ocean. ‘‘I can have this chaotic day, be in Sydney for 10 hours planning the National Medical Cannabis Research Strategy with my colleagues, then come home and not think about it.’’
Kathy is passionate about work. Her career has been imbibed with determination and gusto. She has held jobs as a community psychologist, supervisor, senior manager, researcher, director, advisor and advocate – all in health related fields.
She even has an appointment at the World Health Organisation in Manila, she tells me proudly. Last year Kathy was asked to speak on a panel about the role of women in developing health initiatives across countries. But has being female impacted her own career?
‘‘Men may well have been wanting to put me down, but I wouldn’t have known.” she says flashing a grin. ‘‘Or if I noticed I didn’t care. It only made me think, ‘Well I’ll show you, mate!’ ’’
Education was always important to her parents. Her father began a university degree but was conscripted during World War II before he could finish, while her mother, being a woman, did not have the option to attend. It was an unspoken expectation that Kathy and her siblings would pursue higher education.
Kathy enrolled in four different faculties in her first month at university. ‘‘I didn’t want a degree that would lead to me only having one career,” she explains.
Her interest in working in health was sparked by a conversation at a friend’s wedding. Sitting next to her friend’s new sister-in-law, Kathy asked the woman what she was studying. Psychology, the woman replied, and loving it. I could do that, she thought to herself, and so she did.
After university Kathy became a community psychologist in Western Sydney, an area that was growing massively in the 80s, due to an influx of migrants and refugees. The growth rate, at its peak was the equivalent of eight busses a day driving down Parramatta Road bringing people into Western Sydney.
Still fresh out of university she became a supervisor. Her mere 12 months experience put her ahead of everyone else and landed her a challenging role.
‘‘I used to get sent all these people from Vietnam and Cambodia who’d been tortured and women who’d been raped, and here was I, this brand-new graduate with huge amounts of inexperience,’’ she says.
The people she treated had a profound effect on her. She soon moved into migrant health and became the Migrant and Refugee Health Manager for Western Sydney, another huge role for a young psychologist.
‘‘I was in my twenties and it never occurred to me that I should be out of my depth,” she says. “I just thought, I’d better get in here and advocate for these people. Nobody else is going to.’’
Susan Cragg was a social work student completing a placement in Western Sydney when she met Kathy. The pair became life-long friends, both sharing an interest in social justice issues. Susan saw the importance of being able to speak up and challenge the norm, which was an ability that Kathy possessed.
‘‘She’s very intelligent and able to think effectively on her feet, and it made her a great advocate,’’ Susan says.
Kathy’s commitment to equity led her to the next step in her career, as a health researcher in the Illawarra. She found a particular interest in what she calls ‘Cinderella services’: those that are overlooked but also crucial to the most vulnerable in society, such as mental health services, rehabilitation, aged care and palliative care.
She found a strong ‘resistance culture’ in the Illawarra. People liked how things were done and were unwilling to change. Kathy was concerned about the lack of evidence-based initiatives in the area and began to work closely with the University of Wollongong.
This led to the formation of ASHRI, an institute that unites universities and researchers across Australia and internationally.
‘‘At ASHRI we think, how can we create a culture that encourages people to think outside the square and be disruptive in their thinking?’’ she says.
Palliative care is something that Kathy is especially eager to talk about and a topic close to her heart. In 2017 she delivered the annual Alan Owen lecture, in memory of the prolific researcher who was also a close friend of Kathy’s. She spoke on the topic of end-of-life care, with a focus on the controversial subject of voluntary euthanasia.
Her grandmother’s funeral visits all those years ago, helped shaped her views on death. Kathy believes we live in a ‘death-defying society’, where length of life is prioritised over quality of life.
‘‘People talk about the value of investing in prevention in health; preventing what? We’re not going to prevent death. Do we really want our mothers and grandmothers dying in intensive care without any privacy or opportunity to say goodbye?’’ she says.
Kathy aims to encourage people to talk about their end-of-life wishes well in advance of the need to implement them. Voluntary euthanasia she says can be a powerful tool to ensure people die with dignity and control, as well as being given the option to forgo painful and expensive treatments.
Kathy is not at all phased about her personal end-of-life plan. She doesn’t want to be a burden. Her plan is to work while she has the energy, then travel, and die young.
‘‘I want to burn out, not rust out,’’ she says.