Yanti Turang is a registered nurse from Australia who currently lives in the U.S, where she has spent the past year working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
She’s also the founder and executive director of LearnToLive, a global health not-for-profit she started in response to seeing her own family in Indonesia suffering from chronic and preventable illnesses.
And she was once described as a “rock star nurse”, especially arriving in Sierra Leone in 2015 to help fight the Ebola crisis.
It’s fair to say she’s living an incredible life in pursuit of looking after others.
But Yanti didn’t start her career as a healthcare worker. In her twenties, after taking off from Australia to travel the world, she played in a rock’n’roll band and toured the U.S, when then Hurricane Katrina hit her adopted city of New Orleans.
Seeing the devastation around her and feeling helpless to respond, Yanti reevaluated her direction in life and decided to go back to university to study nursing. She’s since gone on to become an inspiring leader in the public health space and is soon to write a book about her journey.
In the latest episode of What She Did Next Yanti talks to Jacqui Ooi about family tragedy, making the leap to the healthcare sector, her experiences working in hospitals, what she’s learned from setting up her own not-for-profit organisation, and the most challenging moments of her frontline work in the battles against COVID-19 and Ebola.
Growing up in Kyneton, Turang said she was “already sort of versed in this sort of international splitting of worlds” — her mother is Australian and her father is from Indonesia.
“My upbringing in Kyneton was, looking back now, like idyllic and utopic it feels as though now in this world,” she tells Ooi.
As a child, Turang visited her father’s family in Indonesia quite frequently.
“So I knew that life was different in Indonesia and say there wasn’t the same access to water or the roads were different or the schools were different or sometimes the bathrooms were different. And it was fine for me… but I guess looking back now, that information was stored very much in the back of my brain somewhere, considering the future work that I ended up doing.”
Turang said that experience opened her up to the lives of others: “And yeah, I could tell early on that, like, a lot of my family members had to work so much, there were extra struggles with their day to day that we didn’t even have to think about at home. And that occurred to me as a, as a young girl. And then, yeah, I guess it imprinted.”
Before heading the battle against the world’s most dangerous diseases, Turang was a rock star. How did that happen?
“I was always interested in music,” Turang said. She continued her guitar and piano training, then took herself backpacking in Europe with her guitar. There, she met fellow adventurers from America and ended up travelling to New Orleans with them, where she stayed for almost a year.
A family tragedy saw Turang return to Australia. “Your life starts all over again when you lose someone, particularly a sibling,” she explained of her brother Nick’s death. “And it’s a new knowledge and life looks different. And so it’s a new way to navigate the world.”
Over the next few years, Turang returned to the U.S where she toured as a singer-songwriter.
Hurricane Katrina made her shift her worldview.
“You could have chosen a whole range of ways to find this purpose or a new direction, but how did you land on nursing as the path for you?” Ooi asked.
“I had actually never thought about nursing, which is interesting, but I had been affected by healthcare and nurses,” Turang explained. “My father was in a terrible accident in the 60s in Australia that caused him to have burns on his hands. And Mum and Dad would always talk about how the nurses would always take care of Dad. So that was always part of the narrative and with my brother being sick… I mean, that’s who I interacted with as a kid at a hospital.
“My brother was in the hospital. And so they [healthcare workers] were always on a pedestal for me. I saw that they were the… It occurred to me very early on that they were the backbone of a system that took care of people.”
“When Katrina happened, very quickly I was like, what am I doing? I’m playing in a rock’n’roll band, I can’t offer anything, I can’t do anything. And I said to my ex at the time,’I think I should go back to school. I think I might try to do nursing and get in and then maybe one day I’ll be able to come back to New Orleans and actually do something and help people. And so that’s when I moved back to Australia to do my nursing degree.”
In 2011 Turang started her own not for profit organisation, LearnToLive, which brings together groups whose combined resources create programming that can help capacity building and increase people’s knowledge about their own personal health, as well as bringing primary basic clinical care to remote parts of Indonesia.
“I honestly had no idea what I was doing,” Turang said. “I didn’t go to school for non-profit management, actually didn’t really know anything about it. But what I did do and what I think I recognised early on was that you need to surround yourself with people that do know and I, in my leadership, that has continued. If you’re going to work with me or I want you to work together, you have a skill that I don’t have and so I need you to tell me.”
“I think that people think that leaders are the ones that need to have all the ideas. And I really don’t believe that. I think they just need to be really good at organising people and the right people, and then giving those people a platform to be who they can be.”
Fast forward to 2020, and Turang was one of the hundreds of thousands of frontline workers battling COVID -19 in the U.S. In April of last year, she was interviewed by the New York Times’ where she spoke about her experience as an emergency room nurse at a New Orleans hospital.
So where to next?
“I’m currently writing a book, and so I’ve got to spend some time on that. Hopefully 2021 is the time when I kind of think about where I want to go next.”
Turang believes imposter syndrome is real, but there’s a sure way of overcoming it.
“One of the bravest moments was last year when I got the call from the National Guard and the State to say, we want YOU to help build this hospital. I knew that I could do it, but I just had such imposter syndrome and I don’t know if I faked it till I made it, but I just was myself and asked all the questions. And I did have to be brave, I believe at that point. I had to have confidence and yeah, that would probably be my bravest moment.”
Listen to What She Did Next’s latest episode featuring Yanti Turang here.