Dr Kristopher Rallah-Baker – Australia’s first Indigenous ophthalmologist

18 Jan 2017
Member Story

AIDA spoke with Dr Kristopher Rallah-Baker about his career, art, culture and music, and his connection to AIDA.

Kristopher was born in Canberra, ACT, where his dad worked with National Parks and Wildlife Service and his mum worked in the Aboriginal Development Commission. Although he doesn’t remember it, Kristopher says Uncle Neville Bonner held him in his arms on the steps of Old Parliament House when he was a baby – that’s a pretty inspirational way to start life. At the age of around four he moved to Brisbane with his parents and brother where he grew up and completed school. Kristopeher‘s mob are Yuggera and Juru/Birrigubba.

We congratulate Kristopher on passing his recent ophthalmology exams. We asked him how it feels to be the first Indigenous Australian to pass the ophthalmology exit exams and begin his Fellowship year in ophthalmology.

“It has been a long process to get to this position and the reality is still sinking in. My pass notification came through on the 4 April and it still feels very surreal. To achieve this outcome it has taken a lot of effort not only on my part, but on the part of multiple generations of family and supporters.”

Kristopher currently works at Lady Cilento Childrens Hospital in Brisbane. We wondered what his plans are for the rest of the year.

“I have been offered a position to commence a Fred Hollows Foundation Fellowship around June 2017. The paperwork for this to commence is currently being completed but it is planned that I will work three months in Alice Springs and three months at the Pacific Eye Institute, based in Suva, Fiji.”

With Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults over 40 experiencing six times the rate of blindness than non-Indigenous Australians, we asked Kristopher what he perceives to be the main areas of focus in order to improve the situation.

“Diabetic retinopathy and cataract are two areas of preventable and potentially reversible blindness with significant impacts amongst our people. Major inroads have been made into these areas but much more work is still to be done.”

We asked Kristopher who inspired him to become a doctor.

“My nanna (mum’s mother) lost her own mother when she was 12 from pneumonia after refusing to see the white doctors for medical assistance. She was a member of the Stolen Generation. Her story was told frequently in our family and I credit her with the inspiration for me to become a medical doctor.”

Kristopher has already achieved a lot in his career. He developed and managed the Indigenous Health Unit in the Logan-Beaudesert Health Service District. He also developed the Deadly Ears Indigenous Hearing Health Program for Queensland, which has now been adopted as the National Indigenous Hearing Health Program by the Federal Government. We asked him what it is that drives him to develop these initiatives.

“I have been given opportunities afforded to too few of our people – private schooling, family stability, a place in medical school, and postgraduate specialist training – as a result of the hard work and dedication of the generations who came before me. I have an obligation to act on these opportunities to the maximum of my ability so as to improve the lives of our mob, share with others the opportunities I have been given and ensure that the efforts of those who came before are respected.”

Kristopher was elected as a Director on the AIDA Board in September last year. We asked him about his experience so far as a Board Member.

“It is a great privilege to serve as a Director on the AIDA Board and have the opportunity to work with a group of such intelligent and dedicated individuals. I have loved my time on the Board to date and hope to contribute for a long time to come if the Membership affords me that opportunity.”

As an 18 year old, Kristopher was one of the foundation members of AIDA. We asked him if he could tell us a bit more about how it all happened 20 years ago.

“The University of Newcastle Medical School and associated university bodies and individuals organised for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander medical students and graduates from across Australia to meet to discuss founding a support network or formal organisation as a way of improving the number of Indigenous medical graduates in the country. The University of Newcastle was the driving organisation behind the meeting because at that time they had the largest cohort of medical students and graduates. In total nationally we had less than eight graduates and a maximum of around 30 medical students from all universities. It may sound strange to our newer members but in 1997 there were far more medical students than medical graduates and the whole concept of having Indigenous medical students and doctors was very new to us and the medical system.

“So, from 31 March to 3 April 1997 we met at Salamander Bay, just north of Newcastle. I was a bright eyed 18 year old in my first year of medical school, surrounded by around 50 other people, including support workers and the Dean from the University of Newcastle Medical School, local community representatives, members of The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) and international medical graduates from New Zealand, Hawaii and Canada. Over the course of the few days it was decided that we would form an Indigenous medical association and there the story of AIDA began.”

We asked Kristopher how important he thinks cultural safety is for Indigenous medical students and Indigenous doctors in Australia.

“Cultural safety is critical in the success of graduating Indigenous medical students and ensuring that there is success in later postgraduate training. Very serious issues of cultural safety and cultural violence have unfortunately been a significant and unwelcome feature of my own postgraduate training. The colleges are slowly improving in this area but significant deficiencies remain.”

As AIDA is about to launch our new mentoring program, we asked Kristopher about his own mentoring experiences.

“Mentors in many ways are akin to Elders who support and guide us through a process towards success. The support of my mentors during my ophthalmology training was critical to my success. I had an official College mentor, an unofficial College mentor and a non-College mentor who is a well-known GP and media personality. Although my mentors were non-Indigenous, they provided me with unwavering support, belief in my ability to succeed and smoothed troubled waters as they arose. To have an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander doctor as a mentor would take that support to another level and I foresee will play a key part in our continued success in graduating medical students and Fellows. I encourage my younger colleagues to find a trusted mentor during their medical school and later training.”

We asked Kristopher what his dream job would be.

“I would like a combination of private and public practice in South East Queensland, as well as maintain community outreach work and possibly a future federal political career.”

We have also heard rumours that Kristopher is an accomplished pianist and artist, so we asked him how he balances his art and music with his medical career.

“First and foremost I am an Aboriginal man. Culture, family and community lie at the heart of who I am and a key part of maintaining connectedness to culture in an often busy and stressful life as a medical doctor is through my art work. My pieces all relate to my family’s oral history and are a record of our stories. It is imperative to me that I maintain perspective regarding where my family and people have come from and always remember that being a medical doctor is my vocation, not my identity.

“I was also fortunate enough to take piano lessons and formal Australian Music Examinations Board (AMEB) qualifications from the ages of four until 18. I find solace in sitting down at my piano, and although during my specialty training I have somewhat rusted in my technical ability, there are few pleasures in life that are greater than mastering a complex piece of music. My favourite composers are Mozart and Chopin.

“In addition, I was taught the digeridoo by my uncles, although the use of it is restricted to special occasions only.”

We wish Kristopher all the best in his career as an ophthalmologist, and we look forward to continuing our work with him on the AIDA Board.

18 Jan 2017