As a 13-year-old, James Chapman’s life was turned upside down when his father was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia. The decline was rapid and the treatment failed: just seven weeks after diagnosis, James’s father was dead.
“It was my shock introduction to serious illness and the health system,” says James, who is the winner of this year’s AMA Indigenous Medical Scholarship, which will provide the second-year student with $10,000 per year until he completes his medical degree at the University of New South Wales.
James’s father was an Indigenous man from Yuwlaaray Country on the western borders of Queensland and New South Wales, and James travelled back there with his grandfather and uncle to return his father to where he was born.
“It was the first time I’d been out to a remote Indigenous community, and it wasn’t until that trip that I learned about the cultural importance of what I was doing. It gave me an outlet to deal with my grief and a sense of belonging to a culture. It was a real connection and a bond that I can’t really explain.”
But the trip also opened James’s eyes to the issue of Indigenous health in remote communities.
“It was a huge wake-up call. I just hadn’t realised the extent of the problem.”
That was by no means the end of James’s family woes. Eighteen months after his father died, his uncle, with whom he’d travelled to his Dad’s country, had a heart attack and also passed away.
“From then on, I knew I wanted to be involved in Indigenous health, but I didn’t know how. I managed to get into an Arts program at Wollongong University where I was doing Indigenous studies and public health. But after only a year of doing that, my Mum was diagnosed with a brain tumour.”
It was successfully removed, but the surgery was complicated, and James’s mother developed a skull infection which required months of recovery. James took on the role of primary carer.
“From that point on I was always around doctors and I was seeing how the health system works and I got a feel for it. I guess I’d finally found what I wanted to do.”
He applied for an entry program for Indigenous students to study medicine at the University of New South Wales, and was accepted in 2016.
James says his focus remains on Indigenous health, and he’s optimistic that the current situation can be turned around.
“It comes down to the government allocating the right resources, as well as the medical institutions themselves and the importance they place on training Indigenous doctors and healthcare workers. It’s not going to happen tomorrow or next year, but if we keep promoting Indigenous people to enter the healthcare industry we can and will close this gap that exists.”
James says one thing that remained with him after his Dad passed away was that he never recalls seeing his father going to the doctor before his final illness.
“A big thing I want to advocate for is for Indigenous people, and especially men, seeking medical attention when they need it. We need to work to establish a trust between Indigenous people and the medical workforce.”