NACCHO News Alert : Australian Story ABC TV : Dr Mark Wenitong, reggae musician and #Indigenous health leader

AHAH

Dr Mark Wenitong describes himself, first and foremost, as a musician.

He certainly plays a mean guitar in his reggae band. But he is also the father of multi-award winning musicians who have played to packed stadiums — Shakaya, Local Knowledge and The Last Kinection.

At the same time, Mark is a leader in Indigenous health who says his greatest role model was his mother Lealon, who in the 1950s and ’60s fought against the odds to become a pioneering Indigenous health worker.

Eight years ago the family was plunged into crisis when a car crash nearly claimed the life of Mark’s daughter Naomi — one half of chart-topping duo Shakaya. Now Mark’s son, Joel, who was at the wheel on that night, is following his father’s footsteps from music into medicine — and “doing something practical to help our mob”.

Realising an ‘impossible dream’

Lealon, one of Australia's first indigenous health workers

Mark grew up in Gladstone, one of six children being raised by his mother Lealon, who was on her own after throwing out a violent husband.

“She had an ethic that said you either study or you work, ‘but you’re not doing nothing’,” he recalls. “Studying was easier than working, so I went to uni.”

Mark met Deb Sisson, a classically trained musician, at university. The couple fell in love and formed a reggae band which paid the rent and fed the mouths of their rapidly expanding family.

Mark studied laboratory science and became a pathology technician in Cairns.

He began to notice the Third World health problems facing Cape York communities and realised he had to try to do something about the problem.

His mother spotted a small announcement in the paper, offering medical training for Indigenous students at Newcastle University.

Mark went off to Newcastle as a mature-aged student, entering a world he had previously thought had been unattainable.

“Newcastle Medical School, to the best of my knowledge, is responsible for graduating about half of all Indigenous doctors in the country,” says Dr Louis Peachey, one of Australia’s first Indigenous doctors.

“When Mark went through, it was the impossible dream, couldn’t be done, so you needed a very resilient group of people who got to do it.”

Mark and his wife had to work two or three nights a week performing music gigs to put food on the table while studying.

Mixing music, medicine, and raising a young family

In 1995 Mark graduated, one of the first Aboriginal men to become a doctor.

Mark’s eldest son Joel remembers “when Dad was doing medicine, you don’t have enough money to do anything, especially with a bunch of us kids who were just eating everything”.

“So they were performers. I was in bands with Mum and Dad, I was kind of performing with them as well.”

In 1995, Mark became the third Aboriginal male to graduate from Newcastle University Medical School.

After graduating, Mark began a medical odyssey which continues to this day, joining World Vision and working in Central Australia where he came face to face with some of the harshest health challenges

Mark Wenitong graduating from medicine

From there, he worked in the health policy area in Canberra before finally returning to Cairns where he took up clinical roles in the Queensland Indigenous Health Service.

“Dad did become a bit of a working machine. I don’t think there was a community or a job that he didn’t do, that he couldn’t do for medicine,” Joel says.

“You have to be really well organised to fit family time, and mum and dad definitely struggled with finding that balance.”

The medical life and travel took its toll on Mark and Deb’s relationship and they divorced.

Stop Calling Me and the rise of Shakaya

However, music continued to be a huge part of the family’s lives.

Mark’s daughter Naomi met Simone Stacey, another descendent of South Sea Islanders. Together they formed the duo Shakaya and instantly had a chart-topping hit with Stop Calling Me in 2002.

They achieved four platinum records for their singles and toured with Destiny’s Child and Human Nature, but success was not enough for Naomi.

“Just being successful and being black for me for a while, it was really fulfilling,” she said.

“But things were happening in this country that were shocking, you know, like, deaths in custody and stuff, all over the news, and we were on stage singing Cinderella?”

Meanwhile, Joel, who had remained in Newcastle, had been successful with rap group Local Knowledge, which performed edgy political songs.

Naomi and Joel decided to join forces and formed The Last Kinection, named after Lealon, the last of the traditional elders in the family.

Singing his daughter back to life

It was after a successful national tour that Joel and Naomi found themselves driving home along the Sydney-Newcastle freeway.

Suddenly they were run off the road and their car became impaled on a steel guardrail.

Naomi, thrown out of the car by the 100 kilometres per hour impact, was declared dead at the scene.

It was only with the subsequent arrival of two doctors at the accident scene that Naomi’s body moved and she was then resuscitated. But she was in a very bad way.

Mark remembers her injuries: “She had a fractured jaw, a frontal lobe contusion, fractured ribs, fractured wrist, compound fracture of femur, broken hip, broken pelvis.”

Deb kept vigil with her other children and resorted to the healing powers of music.

“I just turned to Mark and I said ‘you’d better start singing that song’ — because he used to sing her this little song,” she said.

“And when I came back he was singing and oh, I just … I just thought that was just beautiful.”

Naomi was in a coma for weeks and when she regained consciousness, she had lost her memory, which included that fact that her beloved Nan had passed away.

“I was like, Nanny’s funeral, is Nanny gone?” she recalls.

“It was just like I had heard it for the first time. I hadn’t mourned … and so I was heartbroken.”

Tragedy gave new perspective on life

Joel, although not suffering physical trauma like Naomi, was in a very dark place.

As the driver, he felt responsibility.

“I’d just be crying for no reason, you know, and, just smells, even smells, like there’s a car accident smell that happens as well, you just start crying, and I just remember having these nightmares with Naomi looking at me going ‘this is your fault, you did this to me’,” he said.

Naomi recovered — learning to walk again and regaining much of her memory.

As she healed, Joel healed too, but it had a dramatic effect on his outlook.

He decided to take up medicine and follow his father’s career.

“Seeing Joel graduate was an immensely proud moment for me. He’ll have a great career in medicine,” Mark said.

“It did start with my mother as a health worker, and she started late in life. I started late in life and then Joel was 33 or 34 before he started medicine.”

Today, Mark is heavily involved in preventative health and is concerned about the growing ice problem in far north Queensland.

He is working with the Gindaja Indigenous residential rehabilitation centre that is treating both indigenous and white ice addicts.

He remains focused on his community’s health needs and inspiring the next generation of young Aboriginal students to be doctors.

“The choices for me to come back and work with communities and with my own mob up this way was kind of an easy one really,” Mark observed.

“I wasn’t particularly interested in a career in medicine or specialising.

“It was more getting the paper (qualifications) behind me and being able to have a voice in Aboriginal health and to be able to do something practical to help our mob.”

See the full Australian Story on ABC TV at 8pm.

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