Kristy Crooks

Kristy Crooks: If we can beat the flu it will go a long way to beating other Indigenous health problems too

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Kristy Crooks

Author: Kristy Crooks

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Kristy Crooks is a proud descendant of the Euahlayi people from the Lightning Ridge area of northwest New South Wales. Kristy is an Aboriginal Program Manager with the Public Health Unit, Hunter New England Local Health District and is passionate about improving health outcomes of Aboriginal people.

My role as program manager with the Hunter New England local public health unit involves leading the development and delivery of effective strategies for combating communicable diseases like the flu.

The flu, or influenza, is a big problem around the world, but Aboriginal people are particularly at risk of getting severe flu, which can result in serious complications that non-Indigenous flu sufferers often don’t experience. How much flu we see each year depends on which types of the virus are circulating and how susceptible the population is. The ongoing high rates of chronic illness within our Aboriginal communities means First Nations people are generally more susceptible to all strains of the virus.

One project I’m working on to improve our health outcomes is called FluTracking. It’s a way to check how much flu there is within communities and to see how well the vaccine is working each flu season. Essentially it’s a community health surveillance system to detect flu epidemics.

I’ve been a dedicated flu tracker for several years now because I live with a chronic health condition. For this reason, I’m also vigilant about getting the flu vaccine every year. I’ve experienced a lot grief and loss seeing my family members impacted by chronic diseases. My dad was only 30 when he died, leaving behind mum and five of us young kids.

Growing up in a single-parent household wasn’t easy, but my mum is a strong woman and although we didn’t have the finest of everything, she succeeded in instilling good morals and values into us. Mum taught me two valuable things: hard work and how to be resilient. It was because of her strength, determination and resilience that I grew up believing that I could achieve anything. Even from early on I was determined to make a difference and work hard to address health disparities that exist in our communities.

Living with lupus is a daily struggle. My symptoms vary, are unpredictable and seem to know no boundaries. While I look healthy on the outside, how I feel on the inside tells a completely different story.

It all started when I was in my late teens. At the time I thought I felt so fatigued because I was playing too much basketball or studying late at night. It got to the point that I couldn’t get out of bed. Patches of eczema appeared and my eyesight got worse. Eventually my doctor recommended blood tests to see what was happening. Many blood tests later I was referred to an immunologist, and in 2010 diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus and Sjögren’s syndrome.

In a normal body, the immune system fights off bacteria and infections to keep the body healthy. However, when a person has an autoimmune disease such as lupus, the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue (like my skin, joints, and kidneys) because it confuses healthy tissue for something foreign.

Over the years I’ve experienced joint pain, hair-thinning, memory loss and cognitive dysfunction. I’ve struggled with this last symptom the most, particularly while completing my master’s degree. I’d often find it hard to even put a sentence together. The words were there, but they wouldn’t come out; my brain just didn’t want to work.

Although I had a supportive network of family and friends, the shame of not being able to express my feelings, retain information, or concentrate was difficult. I was so embarrassed that I noticed a change in my behaviour and mood. I didn’t want to tell people how I was feeling, so I isolated myself from conversations. I was angry and frustrated and cared too much about what others would think. This anxiety would cause my body to stress and would start the vicious cycle of “flare-ups”.

Generally I don’t like people to know how much I struggle. I don’t need people to know how hard it is for me to get out of bed each morning, or how I struggle with cognitive dysfunction. As hard as it is, I try not to let my chronic health condition control my life. I may push myself some days – way beyond what I can handle – but working to improve Aboriginal health outcomes drives me. My success is due to my desire to work with and for more people.

Being a flu tracker is one small thing that I’m doing to help my people. We all have a responsibility to contribute to our communities and close the health gap. Beating the flu each season is a simple yet very important start.

This article was original published in Guardian Australia on 22 May as part of their collaboration with IndigenousX

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