CQU honour for trailblazing Indigenous doctor celebrates medical career where mob means everything
[by Mary Bolling]
Dr Mark Wenitong (centre) with his wife Katrina Rutherford (left) and research collaborator CQU Professor Janya McCalman. Image: supplied
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He's a trailblazing First Nations medical practitioner, and his work and impact is being celebrated where it all began, as CQUniversity recognises Dr Mark Wenitong with an Honorary Doctorate.
Growing up in 1960s Gladstone was tough for young Kabi Kabi man Mark Wenitong, and as he battled through high school, a career in medicine was the furthest thing from his mind.
“I wasn’t a good kid as the Gladstone police probably knew – well, they totally knew cos they busted me numerous times!” he said.
“Trust me, I'm as surprised as most of my old friends and teachers from Gladstone State High School that I turned out a medical doctor!
“It definitely wasn’t what I thought would happen after being on the dole and a labourer on the powerhouse construction.”
Inspired by his mum Lealon, who single-handedly raised six children around her career as an Indigenous health worker, Dr Mark Wenitong became one of Australia’s first Indigenous doctors, and a leader and mentor driving better First Nations health care.
Now his work and impact has been celebrated where it all began, as CQUniversity recognised Dr Wenitong with an Honorary Doctorate at Gladstone Graduation.
Since graduating from Newcastle University Medical School in 1995, Dr Wenitong has practiced across Central Australia and now in Far North Queensland, and was founding member of the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association.
He is also a strategic adviser at Lowitja Institute, the inaugural co-chair of Queensland Health’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Clinical Network, and has held senior positions including Aboriginal Public Health Medical Officer, acting CEO at the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, and medical advisor for the Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health in Canberra.
But Dr Wenitong said he couldn’t have had his impressive career without family support – and family remains his biggest achievement.
“Seeing my kids and nieces and nephews do well, and knowing one is a GP now - that generational change, that’s the biggest thing for me,” he said.
“And they’re recording artists, musicians, artists, have masters degrees, and they’re generally good people!”
He said establishing the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association in 1998 was another major achievement.
“It started as about five of us with 200 bucks, and is now a major player with about 600 or so graduates and specialists in almost every field, a real First Nations workforce success story,” he said.
“But broader than that, the founding fathers and mothers really wanted to stay relevant to our communities, and improve health through clinical, policy, and teaching workforce, so we developed one of the first nationally accredited medical school curricula in Indigenous health.
“That means every doctor who graduates in Australia, whether they become GPs or health ministers, will have some idea about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health.”
“I can hear some of my old school mates saying “mental” alright,” he said.
“My oldest friends and family and cousins are here, so many of whom I look up to massively and without whom I surely wouldn’t even have got past grade 12.”
Dr Wenitong remembers graduating, with “Desmond Beezley - RIP my cuz, still miss you - Deb Nagas, Dazza Lingwoodock, Jimmy Egg, and a few others in senior high school as maybe the first Murri ones to make it that far.”
He also credits his older brothers and sisters being “rocks for me (who) took a lot of the hard stuff growing up for me”, plus “cousins” including the Johnsons, Rowes, Eggmolesses and Wenitongs (the Barney Point mob), Minniecons, and Beezleys: “uncles and aunties who probably didn’t even realise what great solid role models they were.”
“I’m proud my mother got to see me graduate way back, and that was a big moment for her generation (and for me and rest of family!) as older Gladstone Murri and South Sea family.
“I know how proud she was and lots of older Gladstone people knew her and how she managed a lot of hardship to bring us up. She of course was my main influence in life.
“So my grounding in life was here. So that’s why I didn’t want to receive this in Cairns or Townsville but home here in Gladstone.
“I guess that’s a story in itself, that no matter how you start it’s how you finish, and mostly we stand on the shoulders of solid people, like my Gladdie family both black and white, who support you along the way, when even you don’t even believe in you!”
In recent years, Dr Wenitong has extended his focus to medical systems policy and research translation, and has been a Chief Investigator on several research projects funded by National Health and Medical Research Council, focused on Indigenous health and wellbeing.
Dr Wenitong is an Adjunct Professor at the Queensland University of Technology, and has collaborated and co-authored several papers with CQUniversity researchers as part of projects led by the Jawun Research Centre, CQU’s flagship for Indigenous health equity research in Northern Australia.
“My research with Jawun has included projects to understand Indigenous student welfare and resilience in boarding schools, and it’s been great to have outcomes that are making a difference to our young people who have to move away from remote areas to study,” he said.
“CQU is doing some really great research and has been supportive and innovative in health research with people like Professor Adrian Miller there.”
Dr Wenitong hopes his career and achievements will inspire young generations of Indigenous people.
“Especially for the Gladstone mob, you got this if you want it, so don’t listen when people say you’re not smart enough or too rough-head, or have the wrong background and came from a small town or whatever.
“This isn’t to brag, but everything I’ve done shows you can make a difference, even if you’re just some black poor kid from Gladstone.
“As long as you stay connected to community, however high level you go, your background helps you to stay human and useful, as a doctor or in whatever you do.”