“This face pain is too much, doc,” my next patient began. “My wife said I should try acupuncture while I’m still taking antibiotics. Yes, ooh! That’s tender there.” His stubborn sinusitis had started when he was a miner. The ear, nose and throat doctor would visit from the city in 3 weeks. Meanwhile, though the needle hurt the exquisite point at the corner of his nostril, it worked.
One evening after work at the acupuncture clinic, I knocked at the door of one of the university residential colleges. I was helping to build an anti-racist action. One of the inner-city pubs had banned Aboriginal people. We planned to occupy the hotel. The woman who opened the door was not one of the juvenile, cocksure students.
Her Aboriginal face wore an intelligent expression. Another young Aboriginal woman came to the door; looked at me over the shoulder of the first. My mouth was open.
“What are you two doing here?” I asked.
“We live here. We’re studying medicine.”
“What? You can do that?”
The women smiled. They were sisters, younger than me, relaxed and confident. “Yeah, we’re doing it. We’ll be doctors in a couple of years — the first Indigenous graduates in Medicine at this university.”
The sisters’ mum was a high-profile woman — one of the first Aboriginal registered nurses. My own mum had been to university and qualified as a teacher in her 30’s. Why couldn’t I be a doctor?
A few years earlier, my own post-graduate studies in acupuncture had taken me to smoky, easy-going Guangzhou in China. At the white-tiled, herb-fragrant hospital where Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) was used alongside pharmaceutical and surgical medicine, my colleagues included African doctors in training sponsored by the Chinese government. I had to look up Guinea-Bissau and Cote-d’Ivoire. The African students were finishing their six-year medical training, with just a six-month term of TCM to complete.
My friend Mathurin would return to Cameroon as a doctor. A big-eyed black man over 2 metres tall, he moved with the assurance of one who’d achieved ambitious goals. Beyond his mother tongue, Mathurin spoke fluent French and English. He’d also learned Mandarin and Cantonese in China. Mathurin’s father’s legs had been amputated because of diabetes. He studied medicine in an effort to prevent such suffering.
Many of the African students were athletic, all were multilingual and brilliant. They expanded my perception of doctors. The charismatic sisters in Sydney expanded it even more. I applied to study medicine at their university.
“Well, you’re obviously very literate,” one of the counsellors said with a raised eyebrow, reviewing my application. “Why don’t you be a nurse or a health care worker?” she asked.
I replied: “I’ve seen how hard those people work. Their conditions are really tough. I want to learn more. I want to prescribe or take people off medicines. It can be very frustrating to work in health if you don’t agree with the doctor”.
She frowned. “We can’t encourage you to do this. This University’s medical school…” She gave me a hopeless shrug. I didn’t understand this. How was it possible for the sisters to be successful at the university, but not for me?
The next university I applied to was different.
“If you can gain a credit average in maths, chemistry, biology and physics, we’ll let you into medicine,” the affable head of Science said. “I can see you’ll be a great doctor. Whether you’ll survive as a science and medical student is another question.”
This is the third installment of a series of biographical posts. A slightly different version of the series will be published in a chapter of the upcoming book Shattering Stereotypes by Dr Aleeta Fejo and Dr Christine Fejo-King on the journeys of Indigenous Doctors through their training.