My Australia: The country's first Indigenous surgeon on confronting inequality

Kelvin Kong is on a mission to improve ear health and hearing for Indigenous children.

‘My Australia’ is a special SBS News series exploring cultural heritage and identity, and asking what it means to be Australian in 2018.

For kids destined to become doctors, Grace Kinsella’s house was a good place to grow up. The Woromi woman was a community nurse, and her son Kelvin Kong - who became Australia’s first Indigenous surgeon more than ten years ago - recalls a constant stream of relatives and friends showing up for first aid and health care. 

“Whether it be for cuts, bruises, Band-Aids, stitch removal, immunisations,” Associate Professor Kong told SBS News, there was a stream of would-be patients through their home in Shoal Bay north of Newcastle. “And as kids, my sisters who were two years older than me, we would fight over who would help Mum the most.”

A young Kelvin Kong with his two sisters.
Source: Supplied

The early internship paid off; both his twin sisters became doctors too. Dr Marilyn Clarke (born Kong) became Australia’s first Indigenous obstetrician and GP Marlene Kong completed a master of public health. Their father, Malaysian-Chinese Dr Kong Cheok Seng (Tony) was also a doctor who now lives in Malaysia.

But what Dr Kong, now 43, took for granted growing up in his mother’s house awakened a social conscience in him as he got older, when he began to see the different experiences his Indigenous and non-Indigenous mates were having in accessing basic health care.   

“As you get to high school, you start thinking ... 'why are they coming to our house? Just go to the hospital! Leave us alone, go to the doctor!' And you start realising the inequality that happens.

“That thought process made us want to go into the health profession.”

Associate Professor Kelvin Kong was the first Indigenous surgeon in Australia when he qualified in 2006.
Source: SBS News

That, and hearing an inspirational speech by Professor Sandra Eades, a pioneering Indigenous doctor and medical researcher, when he was at school, set him on his career path. “I only had football heroes before that, I hadn’t thought uni was something we can do,” he said. “That was so inspiring.” 

I hadn’t thought uni was something we can do

He credits his big sisters with coaching him through high school and medicine: “they were my heroes, mentors, and tutors”, but chose to specialise in ENT (ear, nose and throat surgery) in part to stake out his own ground, away from their shadow. His speciality is known formally as otolaryngology (head and neck surgery).

An early mentor of Dr Kong’s said he spotted his talent early on. 

“My feeling was Kelvin was one of those special people that has a celestial tangent, he was going to make huge changes not only because he’s the first Aboriginal surgeon in all of Australia, but because he’s a special person who cares,” Clinical Professor Henry Coates AO, a paediatric ENT specialist and Indigenous health advocate said. He has known Dr Kong since he was a young Fellow at the Royal Melbourne Children’s Hospital.

When SBS News visited Dr Kong at work, at Newcastle’s John Hunter Hospital, he had just performed an operation implanting a cochlear hearing device, restoring the hearing of his patient Mareta Jones after three years of living in silence. She used one word to describe him: “humble”.

“Just a beautiful person”, her husband Paul added. “We’re privileged to have met him.”

Dr Kong with staff and a 16-year-old patient with hearing issues at Newcastle's John Hunter Hospital in January 2018.
Source: SBS News

Ear disease is a particularly prevalent problem in Indigenous communities, Dr Kong says. It has a knock-on effect: ear problems early in life cause hearing loss, which can make children disengaged from school and learning, and promote problems with truancy and delinquency later on. 

“If you’re not hearing, you can’t learn, you can’t hear the songlines, you can’t hear the stories, you can’t sing along, you can’t dance. It’s so important to basic life and living,” he said.

If you’re not hearing, you can’t learn, you can’t hear the songlines

So why is the health gap so prevalent?

“As a Worimi man it breaks my heart to see in this first world nation where we have the same hospitals open to all Australians that we have this huge disparity in healthcare and diseases,” Dr Kong said. 

“In ear disease we're talking about rates where it's off the Richter [but] perforations of the eardrum [are] such a simple issue.

“The World Health Organisation talk about it being a problem when the rate is over four per cent. In some of the communities I visit it's 90 per cent. This is Australia. It's a real blight on us and what we're doing.”

It means healthcare professionals have to rethink how people access their services, he says, as in his experience, parents from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to have the skills, knowledge or confidence to advocate for their kids in the health system. This is in part why ear problems persist at a higher than average rate among the majority of Indigenous people who don’t live in remote communities.

Surgery is tough and high-pressure, and the hours are long. But Dr Kong, who with wife Kiara has two children - son Lewis and daughter Ellery - also mentors high school students and wants to encourage more Indigenous people into medicine and surgery. He visits Broome each year to perform much-needed specialist consultations and surgery in the remote Kimberley.

As a proud product of Australia’s multicultural melting pot, he says identity is not about labels.

“First and foremost I’m Australian, and I’m bound by my community and my family … I have a very strong Aboriginal identity but also a very strong Chinese identity. I think it’s wonderful we can have this mixing pot of different cultures, [but] the values are very similar.”

But he is troubled by the celebration of Australia Day on January 26, given the trauma associated with the date for his Indigenous forebears, and hopes eventually the date will be changed.

“I love Australia Day, it’s nice to acknowledge the people we do on Australia Day, it’s nice to acknowledge that Australia is such a great country to live in … [but] for personal reasons, I think the day is the wrong date.”

“Every Australian should embrace Aboriginal Australia, because it’s all of our culture, it’s our history whether you like it or not. We need to own it.”

Published 25 January 2018 at 4:14pm, updated 26 January 2018 at 9:36am
By Kelsey Munro, Carol Holmes