As a member of one of Australia’s only set of Indigenous quintuplets, Erika Chapman-Burgess will have a unique cheer squad on hand when she graduates with a Bachelor of Medicine at the University of Newcastle this week.
Along with her proud parents Ian and Adele, Dr Chapman-Burgess will be flanked by her quintuplet siblings Jack, Louis, India and Georgia to celebrate becoming the first doctor in her family and the first Indigenous doctor from her hometown of Glen Innes.
“It is still very surreal to me,” she says. “I knew I was going to finish, I had no doubt, but finishing medical school was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life so far.”
Dr Chapman-Burgess will join a cohort of 113 medical students, including five other Indigenous medical graduates, when she dons the cap and gown.
The University of Newcastle is a leader in Indigenous education and research, with the largest number of Indigenous students of any Australian university. Half of Australia’s Indigenous doctors have graduated from the campus.
Armed with her impressive academic record and with the support of the university’s Wollotuka Institute, Dr Chapman-Burgess successfully participated in UON’s intensive interview process for its Joint Medical Program and began her studies in 2011.
“A lot of people were shocked when I got into medicine,” she says. “I didn’t tell a lot of people at first because I was scared of failure.
“I believe that it is important for Indigenous people to take initiative and obtain qualified positions as health practitioners and workers so there is the connection between Indigenous people and mainstream health services.
“By practising not only as a doctor but as an Indigenous doctor, I hope to connect to community and close the gap between communications and change the options of bush medicine compared to mainstream medicine.”
The 24-year-old, whose language group is Ngurrabul, was born in Brisbane and raised in northern NSW, where her parents promoted the importance of education from a young age.
She says she hadn’t met an Aboriginal doctor until she moved to Newcastle for university.
“During my time at the University of Newcastle, I have met so many supportive and amazing people and it has really opened my eyes to what is possible.
“I am very proud of my Aboriginal culture and heritage and I am hoping to become an advocate for Aboriginal health within medicine, whether that be with patients, medical students or other doctors.”
Dr Chapman-Burgess says her greatest inspiration is her mother.
“My mum took 10 years off to raise us and then at age 40 put herself through university, studying a Bachelor of Education,” she says.
“She is a very well-respected Aboriginal elder in her community, who has worked so hard to get where she is today. She actively promotes Aboriginal education and Aboriginal culture as a head teacher at the local high school and the wider community.
“My mother was very encouraging of us to go on to higher education. We had a very supportive environment to make sure we did the best we could in the HSC and year 12 and aim for great accomplishments.
“She has already booked all five of us in to return to our high school in two years’ time and address the year 12 valedictorian night.”
Dr Chapman-Burgess’s brother Jack is a police officer at Moree, Louis is a police officer stationed at Tamworth, India is a program convener at the University of New England for AIME (Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience) and currently studying nursing, while Georgia is an event planner based in Sydney.
“I know I and my brothers and sisters would not have achieved what we have so far without the backing of our parents,” Dr Chapman-Burgess says.
She says one of the highlights of her university experience was doing clinical placements in rural and regional areas, including her hometown of Glen Innes.
“It was so rewarding and very special to connect with my local doctors, who have known me and my brother and sisters since birth,” she says.
“Going back to my community and other rural or remote Aboriginal communities to work with Aboriginal patients is something I dream to do as a part of my career in the future.”
Now a first-year intern with Hunter New England Area Health Service, Dr Chapman-Burgess is working at Belmont District Hospital in drug and alcohol support services.
She is also looking forward to her next rotations in emergency and general medicine at the Mater Hospital, and then surgery, maternity and gynaecology at the John Hunter Hospital.
“Running my own clinic, working as a specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology is where I would like to take my career,” she says.
“Compared to studying medicine, the pressure, hours and responsibility of being a doctor is a whole other level of challenging – which at the same time, is so very rewarding. It truly is a career that defines you. I absolutely love it.”