As a 5 year old in Lima, Peru, Gladys Hitchen experienced a medical emergency so devastating that her life was forever impacted. Surprisingly, that impact was by all means a positive one – following her recuperation, she was driven to learn and genuinely understand the physical need for a strong and healthy diet. With this new found passion, in addition to a deep connection to her faith, and a positive mindset, she set a life for herself that would combine all these factors.
With a long and successful career in the health education space in both Australia and her beloved homeland Peru, Gladys offers her own time, despite a hectic work schedule, to deliver a monthly health education program for hispanics living in NSW who suffer from Diabetes (and other related diseases). During her education sessions, which usually run for several hours on a Saturday at the end of each month, she provides information to a community of Spanish Speakers who wouldn’t normally have access to such important information due to language barriers.
We spoke with Gladys about the work she does and how she has managed to forge a career for herself in a foreign land, with the support of her family, and dedication to her own education and well-being.
What led you to do what you do?
I was born in Lima, Peru, and I came to Australia in 1981. I emigrated to Australia after I married my late husband Dennis, who was already a resident in Australia. We had three wonderful children. My passion for nutrition and dietetics started when I was a 5 year old girl who suffered the most devastating intestinal obstruction. I would not have survived if it wasn’t for our Christian faith and a skillful paediatric surgeon in Lima. That was the start of my vocation and passion for dietetics, particularly using my knowledge to teach people to properly eat at all ages and in all clinical situations.
What did you learn in your younger years that you were able to apply when you migrated to Australia?
In high school I had the most wonderful teachers and school mates with whom I am still in contact. There I learned a love for sciences, the basis of my specialty in dietetics and nutrition. I received my university degree in Nutrition and Dietetics in Lima, and I came to Australia after 10 years of professional experience. I worked in Lima and in the country areas of Peru, with different organisations such as the Huariaca and Cerro de Pasco Hospitals (Central Andean Region), and at the Rebagliatti Hospital in Lima, was in-charge of the nutrition service at the Private University of Lima, gave lectures to the physical activity school teachers at the National Institute of Sports and was a broadcaster for the National Radio on topics of community nutrition education. This enabled me to reach people in remote areas and poorer communities who usually would contact the radio looking for my educational support, travelling to their own communities to teach them on weekends.
Did you have any life-changing experiences that put you on the path that led you to what you’re doing today?
Coming to Australia changed my whole life, and for the first 5 years I was totally dedicated to my husband, my greatest supporter, and my 3 children who were all my family and my life in this country. Soon after I became involved as a volunteer with the community program Meals-On-Wheels and when my children went to school, I was in charge of the tuck shop, converting it into a healthy food shop and training the other volunteer mothers on how to improve the nutrition of the children.
In 1993, with Maria Figueroa, a Chilean dietitian (and today, my best friend), we met with Liverpool Hospital’s Dietitian Project Officer who oversaw the diabetes program, and together we contributed to the publication of a recipe book, modified for the needs of Diabetics. At the same time I obtained a Dietitian role with the Fairfield Division of General Practice (Federal Government), servicing the Spanish speaking Pilot Diabetes Project. In 1996, I commenced a monthly education program for patients. When the Hospital indicated it could no longer support this program in addition to the hospital program, the patients, who by this stage were empowered by my sessions, invited me to provide guidance in addition to their individual hospital programs. I published an open letter to the Spanish community in a local paper, inviting them to discuss the future of the cultural services provided to people with diabetes. More than 100 patients and their families responded to the invitation, and the Spanish Speaking Diabetes Association was founded on the 5th April 1996.
Twenty years later, the Association offers:
- Preventative monthly health education programs reducing the risk for diabetes complications or development of diabetes or any disease related to lifestyle. These programs are in line with the health promotion campaigns from leading national organisations.
- Free access to a culturally appropriate health educational service.
- Direct participation of members in the management of their own health in liaison with their GPs.
- Participation of qualified health professionals and community workers as guest speakers.
- The production of educational resources in Spanish
- A monthly free of charge 12-page educational magazine in Spanish.
- Social interaction of the members and their families/friends.
- Celebration of cultural and religious events.
- Physical activity program
Do you have any advice for other Latin American’s coming to Australia or recently arrived in Australia and entering the workforce?
Learn English, and bring what you consider the best from your country, I mean, the best of your education and cultural heritage. Don’t bring resentment or any negative thoughts. Be prepared to work harder than ever; come to contribute more than to receive.
Gladys’s personal philosophy is “Help in any way you can”, and without a doubt, she lives and breathes this philosophy in her daily work and personal life. With commitment to helping others, she has spent her entire career educating, supporting, healing and bettering the life of individuals with health conditions.
Congratulations Gladys on your successes to date. The community thanks you, your patients thank you, and their families thank you – you are the light that guides patients through what would otherwise be a difficult time. ¡Muchas gracias!
More information and contact details – Spanish Speaking Diabetes and Heart Association of Australia