Sally Thomas

Patron 1987 – Current

    I remember meeting a number of parents or relatives, and it was so terribly sad for them as well but at least they had the comfort of knowing their son or their brother was somewhere he could get some care. I was just so surprised that in a relatively small community we had so many people who were prepared to be carers and, of course, as we all know, that could be a very full time job.

    My name is Sally Thomas and I have the honour of being the patron of the NT AIDS and Hepatitis Council. I’ve been patron since 1988. Originally, of course, it was the NT AIDS Council, and then later on changed to include hepatitis and became the AIDS and Hepatitis Council.

    I had the opportunity to attend many events, including annual events that are still going. There will also be a welcome or a farewell to a particular staff member, or the committee would just decide we’ll get together and have a drink and they would talk about what was happening, and explain what
    the developments were and how it was all progressing.

    Terry McClafferty actually came round to the house where I was living. I did know Terry, although I wasn’t really aware of his involvement with the AIDS Council. At that time, I was Chief Magistrate in the Northern Territory and he asked if I’d be prepared to become a patron. He explained what the AIDS Council was, their aims, and what they were achieving and why they’d been established, and I felt that it sounded an extremely worthwhile organisation. So I was very happy to accept the offer.

    I noticed that sometimes if I’d mention to colleagues that I was going to have drinks or cocktails after work, everyone would say to me, "Well make sure you don’t eat and drink anything or you’ll get AIDS," and I’d say, "That’s not how AIDS is transmitted. It’s not a problem," but at that time no-one really believed that. They said, "Oh yeah, I bet it is. You just be very careful." I think a lot of people wondered why on earth I would be involved in the AIDS Council because there really was something of an attitude that, "Well, those people deserve to get it". Not in all quarters, of course. There were a lot of people who were sympathetic to the situation, but it is just amazing when you suddenly find somebody who talks in that way. "Oh well, they deserve it so what are you trying to do?" and really having no idea about it or how it had arisen or how you transmitted it.

    I remember once the AIDS Council had a function in the mall. There were some journalists there and there was a particular journalist who came over to me – and there’d been a talk about the importance of using condoms – and I think they may have thought that I would be embarrassed to say that. I mean, I don’t feel embarrassed about that at all. So they asked me, knowing full well what the answer was, and I said, "Yes, it’s very important to use a condom." I thought you’re only asking me this because you think it’s going to be embarrassing or sensational – but it was just the information that was being disseminated. But they thought, "Oh well, she won’t answer this because it’ll be too embarrassing", and I thought, "Well, that’s the message that’s coming out, and it’s very important for people to know and understand that."

    There is an enormous difference now because there are drugs that will prolong life. At that time, when the AIDS Council was first established, there was no known cure at all or anything that could even prolong life in any way, and it was a horrible illness. I remember meeting quite
    a few fairly young men who had come into Darwin. They’d lived elsewhere and I was absolutely stunned because, for some of them, their families didn’t want to know them and they had come here because it was known that there would be people here who were carers, and that there was a community here that would welcome them and be able to provide care.

    I also remember meeting a number of parents or relatives, and it was so terribly sad for them as well but at least they had the comfort of knowing their son or their brother was somewhere he could get some care. I was just so surprised that, in a relatively small community, we had so many people who were prepared to be carers and, of course, as we all know, that could be a very full time job.

    I was such an admirer of Bill McMahon because he was very much involved in coordinating and being involved in that caring. I used to think then, well it’s all very well for me to be patron but the real people are these people who actually will take in someone with HIV and will care for them right through to the end of their life – and the end of their life was a very horrible experience. It was certainly very, very sad, particularly when you think that families would reject somebody – a son or a brother – you couldn’t believe that they could really do that.

    At that time it was more young men but, of course, that changed over time. It was predominantly young men but also a relative of theirs would come here – because the young men had chosen to come here for all the reasons that I’ve just outlined – and maybe they had a family that really just couldn’t cope with it, but they still had a bond.

    And then, of course, there were people over periods of time who were HIV-positive, it affected their job or they lost their job and so it was understandable nobody would ever want to say if they were HIV-positive. I don’t blame anyone. I mean, people don’t necessarily want to go round advertising or talking about their illnesses, whatever it might be. It can be something you don’t want to be discussing but there were, certainly in those earlier times, ones I met that had lost their employment or knew that, if ever they disclosed it, it would mean the loss of job.

    I’ve had dealings with all of the presidents over many years and I think they’ve all been remarkable people. Many of them have been very active in the health area and, of course, Bill Paterson, our immediate past president, was a nurse working in intensive care at Darwin Hospital. 

    Lots of women have also been involved with the committee and, of course, many of the women were actually doing the caring but they’ve also taken a committee role and been very active and very supportive of the committee and involved voluntarily.

    I think certainly some years ago and in earlier years, there were some very strong feelings really about how a number of the issues that affected those living with AIDS, and that was a whole issue in itself was that you should never say ‘dying of AIDS’, it should be ‘living with AIDS’. That became a big issue and then, of course, yes, it was ‘living with HIV’, but all of those were issues of the time.

    During the thirty years there have been times when the organisation experienced turmoil, and opinions were very divided. From time to time there might be an individual who would come to me and perhaps they were feeling a bit angry about something or wanting to put their point of view across. I would always treat that as completely confidential.

    I can understand people have very strong feelings and they do need to let it off. I was made well aware that there were a couple of AGMs where some very passionate feelings would be coming out, and had suggested that it would be probably better that a patron didn’t go to the AGM. I think probably as a general rule it’s not always a good idea for a patron to go the AGM.

    Over the years, there’ve been some absolutely beautiful functions that the AIDS Council have organised. There were some really lovely functions that we’ve had down at Lake Alexander, and putting the candles on to the lake. Usually there would be a speaker and, of course, perhaps a drink or something afterwards. It went from being such a few people who came to any of these events and then suddenly there was a lot of people, and then there were a lot of politicians.

    One of the other candlelight ceremonies I remember was when it was in this phase of lots of people were coming. They had a ceremony out at East Point and the idea was we all had big baskets of Bougainvillea flowers – and we were to throw the Bougainvillea flowers over the cliff into the sea, which would have been a lovely thing to have occurred. But just at the crucial moment, quite a strong sea breeze came in and all these Bougainvillea flowers got blown back on to all of us waiting on the cliff edge. [laughs]

    And then in more recent years the AIDS and Hepatitis Council have put on events where there have been interesting films presented. People are still wanting to commemorate ... but so many tears were shed for so much time that it's better to do it in a way that you can become a little bit more informed and enlightened, and still feel a sense of community.

    Of course, in the earlier times there would always be individual people who had died in that year that people specifically wanted to remember, and it was very emotional for them because often they would be very close to the person who died. That aspect is different now because that’s not happening in the same way.

    I guess I never really expected, when I first agreed to being patron, that it would be such a rewarding experience.
    I’m a person who didn’t work in the health area but it meant that I met a lot of people working in that area, and also met a lot of people who were really just so amazing in what they were prepared to volunteer to do. Not just the carers but those who were volunteering for committee positions and giving a lot of their time in a very dedicated way. It’s very rewarding to see what human beings will do. You know how wonderful human beings can be.