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Trailblazing Indigenous doctor honoured for outstanding career and contribution to First Nations health

Giovanni Torre -

Trailblazing Indigenous doctor Dr Mark Wenitong has received an honorary Doctorate from CQUniversity, celebrating almost three decades of work to improve the health and wellbeing of First Nations peoples.

Dr Wenitong, who is also board deputy chair of Community Enterprise Queensland, is one of Australia's first Indigenous doctors and a leader and mentor in driving better First Nations healthcare.

Since graduating from Newcastle University Medical School in 1995, Dr Wenitong has practiced across central Australia and now in Far North Queensland, and was a founding member of the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association.

Dr Wenitong has been the Public Health Medical Advisor at Apunipima Cape York Health Council since 2008, where he continues to practice clinical medicine and remote health service systems and program delivery.

In addition to being an adjunct professor at the Queensland University of Technology, Dr Wenitong is the strategic advisor for the Lowitja Institute, Research Knowledge Translation and the inaugural Co-Chair of the QH Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statewide Clinical Network.

Dr Wenitong was previously appointed as the Aboriginal Public Health Medical Officer, and the acting chief executive at the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) in 2012.

It has been a long and remarkable journey.

Growing up in 1960s Gladstone was tough for the 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 raised six children on her own around her career as an Indigenous health worker, Dr Wenitong became Australia's leading advocates for First Nations health and wellbeing.

Now his work and impact has been celebrated where it all began, as CQUniversity recognised him with an Honorary Doctorate at Gladstone Graduation on Friday 9 December.

Dr Wenitong said he couldn't have had his 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.

"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 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."

CQUniversity Gladstone Graduation, and Dr Wenitong's conferral ceremony, was on Friday 9 December 2022, at Gladstone Entertainment Convention Centre.

The event saw 69 graduates cross the stage, celebrating their new degrees and qualifications.

This year is also the first time aspiring doctors have been able to stay in Central Queensland communities to study, with CQUniversity's Bachelor of Medical Science (Pathway to Medicine).

The innovative course provides a provisional entry pathway into The University of Queensland's regionally-based Doctor of Medicine program, and the inaugural cohort includes Indigenous students across Rockhampton and Bundaberg.

In a statement, the Community Enterprise Queensland (CEQ) said that since joining their board in early 2020, Dr Wenitong's "deep understanding of both clinical and policy work in the region has proven to be invaluable".

CEQ chief executive Michael Dykes said Dr Wenitong's expertise helps to shape the health and wellbeing strategies of the organisation.

"His clinical experience, involvement in policy work, and his passion for improving First Nations health care has been integral to guiding our health and wellbeing strategies," he said.

"On behalf of the board, executive and our team I'd like to congratulate Dr Wenitong on receiving this well-deserved Honorary Doctorate from CQUniversity, and thank him for his ongoing contributions to both CEQ and towards improving the health and wellbeing of Far North Queensland communities."

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