Dr Marlene Kong
Before I begin, I would like to pay my respects to the traditional Wurundjeri caretakers of the land. It is a great privilege to walk on Woi Wurung land and the peoples of the Kulin nation.
I would also like to acknowledge our guest speakers, Mr Hawke and Professor Guttfreund.
I would also like to acknowledge Lady and Sir Zelman Cowen; Sam Lipski and the Magid and the Castan families.
I would also like to thank Robert Simons, Aubrey Miller and the Australian Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for presenting me with the Ron Castan Memorial Indigenous Scholarship.
Finally, distinguished guests, it is an honour to be here tonight; and I thank you all for inviting me.
By the way, from here on I’m going to use the word ‘Koori’. For those of you who don’t know what it means, it’s the word referring to Aboriginal people used by the NSW & Victorian mob. Different tribes use different languages, so the word differs from area to area.
I’m from the Worimi people in Port Stephens.
My father is Chinese; and my mother is Koori. Most of my upbringing & culture is with my mother and grandmother and my extended Koori family – particularly the women. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity and will to aspire to a Medical career.
When I compare this to my mother’s life; although she may have had the will, she had less opportunity; and despite her strength of personality probably faced frank discrimination and maltreatment. Despite the adversities she and my family faced, as a single parent she was able to instill much pride and determination in myself and my siblings. My mother worked fulltime shift work as a registered nurse whilst raising us, and still managed to be an active community leader and is an inspirational role model for me.
Like most Koori people, I came from a poor background & this of course is one of the biggest barriers to overcome in pursuing medical studies, or any tertiary education for that matter, as an option for a career. My second biggest barrier was not to lose confidence in myself & maintain my determination in the face of pervasive racism across generations, country and within the wider community.
From the moment we enter this world, we have a society that looks down upon Kooris & we are at the bottom of every social indicator as shown time again by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The erosion of our self-esteem is accelerated during our school years. The system is such that it is difficult to succeed in education, which in turn affects employment opportunities, therefore we have a lower standard of living, our health suffers, our kids are reared in not the best of conditions, so they do poorly, and so the viscious cycle propagates.
This may sound like a broken record. It is my reality.
From the time I matriculated from secondary school to university studies, my training has been in the medical field. I gained my medical degree at the University of Sydney then entered the governmental hospital system for 4 years of clinical experience. A few of these years were spent at Royal Darwin Hospital with a large part of that time spent in paediatrics. I also undertook extra studies in family planning. It was during this time that I applied to General Practice training and commenced training in this field.
Stepping into General Practice, I spent one full year in an Aboriginal Medical Service in Darwin, Northern Territory .
After gaining my Fellowship of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, I went onto gaining special skills in Obstetrics and Gynaecology and Advanced Life Support.
Since then, I decided to work overseas with a humanitarian organization – Medicines Sans Frontieres, which took me to South Sudan and Sierra Leone in Africa . I found the experience very life enrichening and rewarding but also challenging.
It was during my time overseas that I decided that studying a Masters in Public Health was necessary to continue work in such a crucial and much needed area. Significant improvements in health comes from changes in social policy, infrastructure and systemic changes. There’s only so much that can be done on a one-to-one clinical basis.
Currently I work in General Practice at several different places including Awabakal Aboriginal Health Service. I also have undertaken a part-time Senior Lecturer position at University of Newcastle , teaching 4th year Medical students on Aboriginal Paediatric Health.
When working with Medicines Sans Frontieres in Africa , I not only enjoyed imparting medical aid, but enjoyed learning and living amongst a different culture. Also seeing the plight of other suffering indigenous cultures, has helped me in a lot of ways to see Australia and its Indigenous problems from a different global and modern perspective. I learnt a lot about the health delivery given by a humanitarian organization in a 3 rd world country, and could not help ponder at why in a first world country like Australia, is indigenous health still so poor?
As those of you with medical careers know, it is a lifetime of learning. I am sure that undertaking this epidemiological year of study will help to improve my understanding of population health, for the betterment of Australia ‘s indigenous population.
I am also looking forward to learning and living in yet another different culture; an ancient and complex culture with a long and strong cutural people who have spiritual and religious connection to their land, similar to my own people. Israel , no doubt, will be an enrichening experience in so many ways for me.
I hope to follow a research path upon completion of my MPH studies; especially in the area of Australian Indigenous Health where there is so much need.
Thank you for keeping a sense of compassion and hope; and for fueling the power of the will against all odds and adversity.