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Nation’s first Indigenous surgeon sends message of hope on closing health gap

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Dr Kelvin Kong, an ear, nose and throat specialist who made history when he became Australia’s first Indigenous surgeon, says he is filled with hope that ear disease in Aboriginal communities can be brought back to the levels experienced by the wider community.

Dr Kong is dedicated to improving access and resources to remote communities to tackle ear disease and prevent a life of disadvantage for children.

“The amazing thing looking at ear disease in this country is that we live in a dichotomy,” he told SBS TV’s Living Black program.

“The dichotomy is that in Aboriginal Australia our ear health status is at fourth-world status. Not third-world status. So we are looking at countries like Africa where their health system is deplorable. We’re actually getting worse statistics than them.”

But Dr Kong said he is hopeful that Government initiatives, such as the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council, along with efforts by the medical profession working in conjunction with the wider community, can make a difference.

“I really hope we’re moving forward and we can decrease the burden of ear disease in Australia and we can see that [the prevalence of] ear disease in Aboriginal communities is back to [that of] the normal population,” he said. “Then you’re going to see all these kids coming through school and taking on the world.”

Dr Kong was inspired to become a doctor by his mother Grace, a nurse, and by his two sisters, who are also doctors. His Chinese father is a general practitioner, working in Malaysia.

“Mum’s probably the biggest inspiration for me,” he said. “She always has been. She’s very humble. She comes from a very humble background. She struggled most of her life … and led by example. She went to university and did a nursing degree.

“She was always driving into us, my sisters and I, saying ‘do what you want to do. Don’t let anybody hold you back’. “

Dr Kong said he was also influenced in his career by a couple of surgeons he had contact with early in his career.

“They were role models, they were leaders in the community and they led not by bravado but by the work they did and giving back to the community,” he said. “And more importantly, the reward that you saw was not so much in what you did but it was in seeing the results for the kids that you operated on, and the experience they got in normalising themselves into the society where they could do whatever they wanted to do.”

Apart from his surgical work, Dr Kong is committed to taking up mentoring opportunities with young Aboriginal children.

“Health is one of those big disparities that we see in this country, so we want to make sure that we encourage them,” he said. “So, going to primary schools, talking to kids, letting them see that there are Aboriginal doctors out there … going to talk to and mentor these kids. Some of these kids, the talent is incredible. I think I’ve met our first Aboriginal prime minister in some of these kids I’ve looked after.”

Dr Kong, a strong supporter of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation and Aboriginal Medical Services, has also been a driving force in the introduction of mobile ear surgery units that go to Aboriginal communities.

“To set up a hospital with an ear, nose and throat department at every location is expensive … so why not make it mobile so that you can put all the resources into one establishment, put it on wheels and move it around?”

In the seven years since he first started as a doctor, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander doctors has increased from a handful to close to 160, a statistic that Dr Kong warmly welcomes.

“It makes a huge difference (to the life of indigenous Australians),” he said. “An Aboriginal doctor serves as more than just a doctor. An Aboriginal doctor serves a purpose in terms of providing health care, educating the general public, and breaking down professional barriers. You’ve got to remember that a lot of people grow up in society, particularly the middle class, where they haven’t even met an Aboriginal person. So to actually get into the system and permeate through the system is a wonderful experience … and when you times that by 160 or 170 people, it’s incredible.”

Debra Vermeer