Vinka Barunga is a proud Worora woman, determined to be the first Aboriginal doctor in her community – but definitely not the last.
Vinka's story is featured on Living Black: Kimberley Healing this week. Watch it on Monday at 5PM on SBS ONE or Tuesday at 9PM on NITV.
She's a capable netballer, a volunteer fire fighter with a weakness for mango ice-cream, a reluctant fisher-woman who hates throwing a line but loves eating the catch. She laughs easily, watches Grey's Anatomy and reads Women's Health.
"I think I was always a little bit medically-inclined," Vinka says, smiling as she casts her mind back to the day her mother bought her a plastic stethoscope as a toy.
"I was always that kid who wanted to put bandaids on and take someone's temperature when they're sick."
The 26-year-old is perched cross-legged on a dining room chair. Her tribe's name is etched along her foot in bold, slanted black ink: Worora. Her long brown hair is swept back into a ponytail, which hangs over one shoulder. Head tilted, she gazes upwards as she reminisces about her childhood days, spent running with the neighbourhood kids, usually wearing nothing but underpants.
"Everyone knows everyone in Derby," Vinka says. "There would be someone that knew where you were and who you were with, so you were always quite safe."
Derby is a small town sitting at the gateway to the Kimberley region of Western Australia. About a two hour drive from Broome, the town greets you with blue sky, red dirt and an unrelenting sun. There's no such thing as winter in Derby – only wet and dry seasons. The temperature generally hovers just shy of 40 degrees. The 5000-strong town draws many visitors from the surrounding Aboriginal communities. The closest community, about 10 kilometres out of town, is Mowanjum, where Vinka was raised.
Most of her early memories involve water: running through sprinklers, mud sliding on the marshlands, swimming in the river (the locals are quick to shrug off warnings about crocodile country).
But Vinka has other, not-so-fond memories, too: little ears irreparably damaged by chronic infections, bodies and minds ruined by alcohol, young lives taken too soon…
But Vinka has other, not-so-fond memories, too: little ears irreparably damaged by chronic infections, bodies and minds ruined by alcohol, young lives taken too soon… It's a combination of the happy and sad memories that have brought her back to her home town – this time as a medical student.
For the past four years, Vinka has been studying medicine at the University of Western Australia in Perth. This year, she's back in Derby for a 12-month placement with the Rural Clinical School. Living with two other medical students, she'll divide her time between the local Hospital and the Derby Aboriginal Health Service.
For Vinka, her patients are more than names on a chart. In many cases, they're family and friends.
For Vinka, her patients are more than names on a chart. In many cases, they're family and friends. The young doctor-in-training is lucky to walk through the waiting room without being held up by at least one relative eager for a chat.
Derby has never had a full-time Aboriginal doctor, and many of the locals are excited to see a home-town girl on her way to graduating from medicine.
"I hope it makes them think 'oh she's done it, I can tell my grandchildren that I went to hospital and saw an Aboriginal doctor'"
"I hope it makes them think 'oh she's done it, I can tell my grandchildren that I went to hospital and saw an Aboriginal doctor'," Vinka says.
Derby's health services cater primarily for Indigenous patients. Diabetes, kidney disease and heart disease are among the most common health issues. Children are often treated for ear or skin infections. These conditions are largely caused, or complicated by, substance abuse, poverty and overcrowding. For visiting doctors, the reality can be confronting. For Vinka, it's all too familiar.
"We learn a lot about Aboriginal health issues and we learn about the really high alcohol and drug use and we learn about the domestic violence," she says, her voice soft and serious.
"We learn about the chronic ear infections in children and hearing problems in later life and mental health issues as a result of forced removal of children and forced removal from country.
"I guess it's something that everyone can learn in theory, but to go and see it is a completely different story."
Vinka's seen a lot in her 26 years. In 2012, her community of Mowanjum reached crisis point after a spate of youth suicides.
"You grow up in a community where you see domestic violence and you see people drinking and you think that that's the way of life"
"You grow up in a community where you see domestic violence and you see people drinking and you think that that's the way of life," she says.
"There have been moments when I’ve felt that as well."
The past few years haven't been easy for Vinka. During her time at university, she's lost both parents to illness. But she hasn’t lost sight of her goal, and she finds daily inspiration in her patients.
"You learn a lot from people in medicine… talking to them about what they’ve done and the struggles they’ve had," Vinka says.
"I guess I think that everyone's life is hard."
In medicine, Vinka has found something to aim for – and now she hopes to inspire other young people in her community to set goals of their own. She believes it's crucial to empower the next generation to create a healthy community. A community free from chronic disease; a community where people have a steady income, and a solid purpose – rather than "just existing". A community where projects are developed by the people, for the people. A community that celebrates culture, cares for country and builds opportunities. It's a vision shared by many at Mowanjum, and Vinka is determined to turn it into a reality.
"If I could inspire one person to become a doctor, or to finish high school, to go onto higher education - regardless of whether it's medicine or not - then that's amazing," she says.
It's this passion for her culture and community that keeps the young doctor-in-training so driven. When I ask Vinka how her culture influenced her upbringing, she laughs and takes a big breath.
"I always struggle answering this question," she replies with a smile that says she’s been asked the same thing a thousand times.
"It's really hard to remove myself from it and say how it's impacted my life, because I guess it impacts every aspect of my life."
I curse myself for my clumsily-worded question, but generously Vinka gives me an answer, and a powerful one at that.
"I think my culture has instilled an immense pride in myself and in my people, so that makes up a lot of who I am and why I want to do what I'm doing, and become a doctor and give back to the people who have taught me so much about who I am and where I belong."
Vinka Barunga is many things: a student, a role model, a natural-born swimmer. But above all, she's a proud Worora woman, determined to be the first Aboriginal doctor in her community – but definitely not the last.
Vinka's story is featured on Living Black: Kimberley Healing this week. Watch it on Monday May 4 at 5PM on SBS One, or Tuesday May 5 at 9PM on NITV.