Dr Kelvin Kong and Dr Mark Wenitong are two prominent leaders in Indigenous health, but they say they faced several obstacles throughout their journey of studying western medicine while keeping true to their culture.
By
Laura Morelli

25 Nov 2016 - 11:08 AM  UPDATED 30 Nov 2016 - 4:20 PM

Kelvin Kong’s home was always bursting with people. His mother Grace was a nurse so everyone would come over for immunisations, band aids, wound checks, colds, you name it.

One of his most distinctive memories as a child was lining up alongside his twin sisters to see who would be nurse Grace’s little helper.

“As a teen I got frustrated because I thought why is everyone coming to us? Why are they not going to see their local doctor or visit the hospital?" he tells SBS.

“But reflecting back it was because the access to healthcare for Indigenous people has always been so deprived and poor and if someone was sick, they would rather see my mum than go to a hospital, where there were no Aboriginal health workers.”

“For us and our culture, contemporary Aboriginal Australia is this amazing energetic, modern, vibrant deadly group".

Dr Kong comes from a well-educated family. His father was a Chinese doctor and his mother was one of the first Indigenous nurses in Australia. His sisters were the first Aboriginal medical graduates through Sydney University which inspired him to pursue a medical career at UNSW, where he became one of Australia’s first Indigenous surgeons.

The Kong family alone make up 1.15% of the 260 Aboriginal doctors in Australia. But despite the families’ success, they didn’t have it easy.

Dr Kong's Nan escaped the Stolen Generations. When she heard people were splitting families up she was determined to keep hers together, so with her partner they raised 12 children all alone. It wasn’t until 40 years later that she and her entire family were reunited.

Racism was quite profound when Dr Kong was at school and one memory he can’t shake is the day he was advised to consider a trade instead.

“It was very upsetting, there was no drive to say, ‘Look, you’re going to go beyond that, you’re going to go to Year 12, you’re going to go to uni and really do something to turn this whole cycle around.’ I was in tears when I came home," he says.

The ear, nose and throat specialist says society tends to think of Aboriginal peoples in this abyss, that they have this ‘cultural status’ and don’t actually progress in mainstream society.

“For us and our culture, contemporary Aboriginal Australia is this amazing energetic, modern, vibrant deadly group which is very different to what white Australia wants to think about us," he says.

“They just want to perceive us with a loincloth and a spear and as alcoholics.”

Dr Kong adds that his connection with Aboriginal culture, his Nan's bush medicine and Dreamtime stories don’t interfere, but instead compliment his practices in modern medicine.

Speaking loud and proud, he makes one thing about himself clear, “First and foremost, I’m a proud family man, secondly I’m a doctor and thirdly I’m a surgeon. Every single role in that I’m Indigenous.”

“That’s something I really hone in on when speaking to kids because you be what you want to be - your culture doesn’t define you, but your culture does define who and how you act.”

Another prominent leader in Indigenous health, who says his Aboriginal heritage has helped him flourish in his medical career, is Dr Mark Wenitong.

“In medical conversation a specialist might say to a patient ‘Thomas, the liver function tests are back and there is a real problem with you liver, hence I am asking you to decrease your alcohol intake.’

"But when I’m speaking to my people I say ‘Uncle your liver is fu***d, and you got to lay off the grog.’”

“There are ways of doing things that are considered ‘medical’ best practice, and cultural protocol that is important; however, Indigenous doctors are in a position to challenge the usual ways of doing things in medical practice,” he tells SBS.

The reggae band member and father of multi-award winning musicians, Shakaya, Local Knowledge and The Last Kinection, says one of the key issues is communication and understanding where your patients are coming from.

“In medical conversation a specialist might say to a patient ‘Thomas, the liver function tests are back and there is a real problem with you liver, hence I am asking you to decrease your alcohol intake.’

"But when I’m speaking to my people I say ‘Uncle your liver is fu***d, and you got to lay off the grog.’”

Dr Wenitong's Indigenous heritage is an advantage with Indigenous patients as the similarities in their culture ensures a better relationship.

“I have a good yarn with people that normally can’t open up to a white doctor, they speak about all types of things that other people just wouldn’t understand. Several patients lean across the desk and say to me: ‘I only telling you this cos you’re a Murri doctor, but I think someone put something on me… I’ve been seeing my ancestor’s spirits lately and I wouldn’t tell a non-Indigenous doc this or I might get locked up!’”

When asked if he believes in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional healers, he smiles and says, “Well, I studied med for five years, and they’ve been doing it for 50,000 - so how could you not have max respect for this world view of health.”

“If a black face isn’t at the table, black issues aren’t discussed.”

The biggest challenge for Dr Wenitong is the workload, and responding to major trauma, but he says his combination of Aboriginal knowledge plus western frameworks enables him to deliver a coherent response.

He is also a strong believer in Indigenous people having a say in Indigenous healthcare.

“Problem is that I find it patronising when people say ‘you got to learn to say no’ … When if it was their kids committing suicide what would they say?" he says.

"If a black face isn't at the table, black issues aren't discussed."

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First Contact (season 2) airs on 29 November, 30 November and 1 December 2016 at 8:30pm on SBS. Across 28 Days, six well-known Aussies take an epic journey into Aboriginal Australia. Watch the trailer here, and catch-up on episodes after the program airs via SBS On Demand here.