Young Worrora woman Vinka Barunga grew up in the Mowanjum community in Derby, a Kimberley town of mangroves and mudflats, where she remembers running about barefoot as a kid. Last year as a UWA medical student, she returned home as part of a 12-month placement with the rural clinical school, where her story was picked up by the NITV team and featured on the station’s program Living Black. This November, along with six other Indigenous students, she graduated from her course – moving one step closer to her ultimate goal of becoming Derby’s first Aboriginal doctor.
It is a story that has won the nation’s all-round admiration. From the ABC to SBS to Women’s Weekly, readers have found much to be inspired by in Vinka’s resilience, and her guiding motivation to give back to her home and her people.
Though Vinka was always “intuitively” set on a career in medicine, it certainly hasn’t been an easy journey up to this point – filled with more challenges than most other students could contemplate, let alone have to face. As an undergraduate, she lost both of her parents – her mother in her first year, and her father in 2015. In her third year of medicine, she failed a unit and considered dropping out. Yet, bolstered by the encouragement of those around her, she rallied her spirits and decided to repeat the year instead.
“I had a lot of people saying to me: ‘One year won’t be anything when you finish, when you’ve been practicing for forty – so just get it done. If this is something you want to do, then you can’t let one little thing get in the way of that.’”
For all their hardship, Vinka speaks fondly of her university days as a time when she would constantly find herself challenged, “not only intellectually, but ethically and socially too”. She found something close to wonderment in seeing so many students throwing themselves into their studies, despite having little clue as to where those studies would take them. The air of inquisitiveness humming in lecture halls and sparking conversations in cafes and lawns was galvanising. (She mentions here a cousin enrolled in Anthropology, who had an extraordinary knack for unravelling all she thought she knew about medicine). Most of all, Vinka loved the diversity of students enrolled, and the rich medley of perspectives and cultures they brought to campus life.
It also meant she didn’t have to feel quite so much like an outlier (in her own land at that). Moving from her small Derby community to the state’s busy metropolis in year seven was at first a jarring experience. She went from starting off in a school where “90% of the students were Aboriginal, and [she] was related to around 80% of them”, to graduating from her year 12 class at Koble Catholic College as the only Aboriginal student.
“It was hard,” Vinka remembers. “I felt like I didn’t fit in, I didn’t like the weather, it was freezing, I didn’t like being away from my extended family and cousins and aunties and uncles.”
Always positive in her outlook however, she drew strength from adversity, and credits the series of hurdles she overcame as important in forging her adaptability and resilience. Against the odds, she made advantage out of disadvantage, and is certain that the life skills she has gained will make her all the better to serve as a working healthcare professional.
She is also emphatic. I understand that her achievements are not hers alone to claim – that without the support networks of family, friends, teachers and mentors, she would not be in the position she is in today. Our conversation is filled with various examples of others’ unfailing investment in her dreams: her family who never gave up on her (both on her Indigenous father’s side, and her non-Indigenous mother’s side); her best friends who would always pick up the phone no matter how far away; and her teachers at Rockingham who went “above and beyond to get me in contact with the UWA School of Indigenous Studies, signing me up to scholarships after I graduated year 12.”
The School has a special place in her memory and gratitude. “It probably one of the sole reasons I finished university,” Vinka says.
“Until I was there, having obstacles put in my pathway, I didn’t realise how much of a support they were. And probably all of the Indigenous students here would say exactly the same.”
The latest report from the Department of Government and Training indicates that although Indigenous Australians comprise about 2.4% of the population, they make up just over 1% of the university student population (nonetheless an improvement from previous years). These students are also half as likely as their non-Indigenous peers to complete their course. Though Vinka acknowledges that every student enters university with their own set of challenges – “housing problems, financial problems, family obligations, work obligations” – the struggles Indigenous students must grapple with are tied up in a long, violent history of wholesale disadvantage, state-sanctioned trauma, and institutional racism.
“If you look at me, my father left school at age 11 – he wasn’t allowed to continue with the non-Indigenous children, so that’s where his education ended,” Vinka relates. “It wasn’t his choice, and it meant he wasn’t equipped with the skills to get a well-paying job to support me and my mum, and to put me through schooling. Which a lot of non-Indigenous students don’t have to face: some do, but a lot don’t.”
Intergenerational trauma, Vinka says, is not something which can be overcome easily, nor overcome immediately. Not only is this because “it is only in the last fifty years that we’ve started to move towards reconciliation”, but because racial discrimination remains very much active in many parts of our society. Even when it comes to acknowledging stark facts like occupation, massacre, enslavement and the theft of children from loving families, “there’s always something else that overrides the recognition of what has happened in the past,” she says. “There’s always some strings.”
Yet recognising that things are changing, and that “we are moving forward” is something which Vinka believes is just as important. She points to how “the percentages of Indigenous students who are going to university and staying and completing university are going up. In the next 50-100 years, things are only going to improve.”
Vinka is equally optimistic about the future of Aboriginal health, believing there to be a salient connection between improving health and an expanded Aboriginal professional workforce. She argues that while funding is important – particularly for established services “running dry” under high-pressure demand – there are other, more localised ways to develop solutions to the health crisis affecting remote rural Indigenous communities. “Culturally appropriate services are something we always talk about,” she says. “And the more that we have Aboriginal doctors and lawyers and social workers and teachers, generally the more culturally appropriate a service will become.”
The seventh Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report was released by the Productivity Commission this November. It found that although there have been improvements in areas like life expectancy and child mortality, other areas of Aboriginal health are either “stagnating or worsening”. Of highest concern to the commissioners was the rise in self-harm rates and suicide; a concern Vinka shares, having been confronted directly with both in the rural clinical school last year.
“It’s something that shouldn’t be happening,” she says. “Kimberley rates of suicide a few years ago were the highest in the world. That’s just insane. For a population that’s only just over 2% of Australia’s population – and after the history of Australia – we can’t afford to be losing our young people. It’s so important – really finding out what is happening in those communities, in these children’s lives, that are making them feel like there is no other way out.
“It is a huge issue that the Australian Department of Health and WA Health have been talking about for years. A significant part of it is drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, the cycle of poverty, and a huge sense of loss of identity and not knowing where you are in the world. Things that people talk about all the time, but are still a complete mystery to the health world.”
When asked if she felt frustrated sometimes, treating the results of these persistent, underlying issues yet in some ways being powerless to directly address them, she demurs.
“It’s not so much frustration as sadness,” Vinka says. “As an Aboriginal person and Aboriginal doctor, it’s also one of understanding as to what has happened, and it’s hard not to be able to feel their pain as well. Sadness that these people had to go through this – and you know what this feels like, and you know what it’s like for your parents and aunties and uncles and cousins. So Aboriginal patients that I see and treat almost subconsciously become part of my extended Aboriginal family.”
Having made it into the field of medicine, she now finds herself in something of a “strange predicament”, as she now must decide which special pocket of that vast discipline she can carve her own niche, and best feed her passions. One thing she does want to learn more about is how western medicine can better integrate Indigenous traditional knowledge and native remedies – not only for the benefit of Indigenous people, but for all who access the health care system. She reflects upon the predominantly under-examined science of pharmacology, and the tendency for individuals to assume that chemicals spring magically out of a vacuum of creation by white-coated experts in closed laboratories.
“Western medicine has learnt a lot in its history – and it didn’t get to where it is now without lots of intercultural, ancient influences,” notes Vinka. “It’s easy to forget, but a lot of drugs are derived from plants – and Aboriginal and traditional medicine is very plant-based.
“On other side of it, for Aboriginal people health is very holistic – and medicine is definitely moving in that direction, where the patient is looked at not just for physical complaints, but also at the level of spiritual health and cultural health as well as mental and physical health.” She recalls listening to the teachings given at last year’s Australian Indigenous Doctors annual symposium by Ngangkaris – traditional healers working in the Northern Territory and Adelaide, who treat spiritual ailments alongside physical ailments, and work from the rich pharmacology of the natural resources surrounding them. Drawing on knowledge passed down through oral tradition for over 60,000 years, Ngangkaris have won awards for their valued approach, with the alternative healthcare being oftentimes a more culturally appropriate and relevant ‘fit’ to the needs of Indigenous patients.
“It’s something that can be explored and that I’m particularly very excited about,” says the young medical graduate.
Though Vinka might not be able to return to the Kimberley for some years yet, there is such a wistful strength in her voice when she talks about that future, it is almost impossible to doubt she’ll get there soon. For the moment, she intends to focus on surviving her internship – it’s said the first year after graduation is usually the most gruelling. And – her own having meant so much to her when it comes to the support they gave, the identity they helped shape, and the knowledge of “where she belongs in Australia and the world” they nurtured – Vinka also would like to sometime begin a family. “Not just yet though” she says, and laughs.
Interview by Kate Prendergast