As a straight ‘A’ student in high school, Kris Rallah-Baker wisely chose to ignore the people who told him he’d never achieve his dream of studying medicine.
Now, the Yuggera and Juru-Birrigubba man from Queensland is on track to next year become Australia’s first Indigenous ophthalmologist.
“When I was in high school, we only had a handful of Aboriginal doctors and it was a largely unknown thing and I think for a lot of people seemed pretty impossible,” Rallah-Baker said.
“My high school councillor did encourage me to do something else other than medicine but I just dug my heels in and applied and got in under my own merits on my first application and went from there.”
Rallah-Baker passed his ophthalmology exams in April and is completing his hands-on fellowship work with The Fred Hollows Foundation, a charity organisation that works to reverse avoidable blindness around the world.
He recently finished a stint working in Alice Springs and will shortly leave to do three months in remote communities in Fiji.
A family tragedy inspired Rallah-Baker to set his sights on a career in medicine.
His great-grandmother died of pneumonia when his grandmother was just 12 years old.
“She was fearful of anyone perceived as a white authority because she was a member of the Stolen Generation,” Rallah-Baker said.
“She quite tragically died of pneumonia, possibly unnecessarily, because of fear. That was something that has always been talked about in my family and obviously had a big impact on my Nanna and my mother, who never knew her grandmother.
“That influenced my career choices and what was considered to be a good and viable career, a career where I could give back to society.”
Rallah-Baker said he chose to specialise in eye health because it combined internal medicine and surgery and also allowed him to move between the city and country areas.
After he’s received his professional letters next year, Rallah-Baker plans to work in south-east Queensland in private practice and also to do outreach work in communities in need.
He said two of the big eye issues for Indigenous communities were cataracts — the leading cause of blindness in Indigenous Australians — and diabetes, which could push cataracts along.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults are three times more likely to be blind than other Australians, according to the Fred Hollows Foundation. Ninety-four percent of the vision loss was preventable or treatable.
Vision loss also accounted for 11 percent of the health gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and non-Indigenous Australians, the foundation said.