'You don't know what you don't know'

19 April 2021

Kate Russell is RANZCOG’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisor. Working in the Women’s Health, Research and Policy Directorate, her role is to advocate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s health to members and staff as well as the wider RANZCOG community. 

Kate retells the story of an anaesthetist friend and colleague, who is treating an Aboriginal woman about to have a procedure and why cultural awareness training is important. 


Doctor R was on duty at a large tertiary maternity hospital in inner city Melbourne, preparing a patient for surgery.

He was delivering his pre-operative anaesthetic preamble to the patient, a spiel he had recited many times over his two decades as an anaesthetist.

Doctor R is beloved and respected by his patients and colleagues; for his empathy, compassion, skill, sense of humour and his commitment to treating all people equally regardless of age, gender, socioeconomic status, or education.

Doctor R’s patient that day was an Aboriginal woman.

He was exercising his due diligence, giving the patient statistics around associated risks from the general anaesthetic.

The woman listened intently and nodded in understanding.
He asked if she had any questions.
She replied, ‘Nah. Deadly’.

Dr R, hailing from a marginalised cultural group, who, like Aboriginal Australians, are all too familiar with genocide, was taken aback. This poor woman! She thinks she’s going to die while under anaesthesia.

Dr R quickly reassured her that the anaesthetic and procedure were safe, and the chance of her dying whilst under were negligible.

It was now the patient's turn to reassure Dr R; ‘Deadly’ is a colloquialism used in First Nations culture meaning “That’s great!”, or an enthusiastic “Yes!”.

Dr R had never heard this phrase before. It was not in his vernacular. This was no fault of his own, nor was it a lack of care, or understanding, or liberal-minded thinking. It was simply that you don’t know what you don’t know.

Dr R chose to ask questions, engage, and to be open to the informal cultural awareness training he was receiving.

Consultation does not equal consent.

Collaboration is key to positive outcomes.

Indigenous Terminology

Using respectful and inclusive language and terminology is important.

Reconciliation Australia provides guidelines for r using respectful and inclusive language and terminology. Click here.

And download Appropriate use of language and terminology for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.



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