Meet the Aboriginal doctor turning tragedy to triumph


The latest Closing the Gap annual report on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander wellbeing has found improvement on early education enrolment and year 12 attainment. That makes only two of its seven targets to be rated as “on track”.

Dr Vinka Barunga has lived through the statistics that reflect the struggles of her people, but has never let them define her potential.

“I can't really remember a time that I didn't want to be a doctor,” Vinka Barunga says.

As a Worrorra woman from Derby, in the Kimberly region of Western Australia, Vinka grew up in the Aboriginal community of Mowanjum.

“The end goal [with medicine] is to go home to the Kimberley and to work in the community I came from,” she explains.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data shows of the 88,000 medical practitioners employed across the country in 2015, just 0.5 per cent were Indigenous – or about 400 people.

For Vinka, her teenage years came with an increased awareness of how European settlement ruptured the lives of her community, and in turn, created enduring health challenges.

Vinka’s dad was born on Kunmunya mission, after the Worrorra people were moved off their traditional lands along the northern coastline of Western Australia.

“At about 11 years old, [he] was told that he wasn't allowed to continue to go to school with the non-Indigenous children,” she says.

“[He wasn’t allowed to] develop the skills in the world that he was now living, to be able to provide for his family.”

Descended from a line of proud leaders, Vinka’s father went on to work in construction before an accident at work left him with one lung. He went through Aboriginal lore, but battled against alcoholism.

“While he was very culturally strong, I think for men, whether you're Indigenous or not, not being able to provide for your family leaves you with some kind of loss of identity.”

Vinka’s mother died from an aggressive brain tumour in her first year of medical school. Just a few years later, Vinka also lost her father, who she had been the sole carer for.

Despite her pain, Vinka used the support from her community and their high expectations of her as reason to carry on. She graduated medicine and is her hometown’s first Aboriginal doctor.

“There were so many people in the community that support me and look up to me and I couldn't let them down,” she says.

“I think I drew from strength from other people.”

Vinka hopes to pass on the same strength and support she received to the next generation of Indigenous women.

“I'd love for, even if there was one person to think well… her community looks like my community, or she's got the same kind of Kimberley hair…I can do that [too] because she's the same kind as us.”