As one of Australia’s first Indigenous doctors, Mark Wenitong combines his skills as a physician and a musician to fight disease and ill health in Far North Queensland. Now he’s determined to prevent the ice drug epidemic from gaining a hold in the region.
“There’s some people who are doctors that happen to be musicians, and there's other people I think that are musicians that happen to be doctors, and that's probably more me.” - Dr Mark Wenitong
From a tough childhood where he witnessed the impact of cultural disadvantage and alcohol on his father and other members of his community, Mark Wenitong broke the mould and enrolled in medicine as a mature student at Newcastle University in the 1990s.
“When Mark went through, it was the impossible dream, you know, couldn't be done… so you needed a very, very resilient group of people who got to do it.” - Dr Louis Peachey
His greatest role model was his mother, Lealon. Back in the 50s and 60s, she fought against the odds to become a pioneering Indigenous nurse.
Lealon Wenitong raised her six children as a single mother while also establishing a reputation for her dedicated health care throughout the Indigenous communities of Northern and Central Australia, which persists to this day. It was Lealon who urged Mark to enrol in medicine.
Today he combines treating patients with a role as Adjunct Associate Professor at James Cook University’s School of Public Health, Tropical Medicine and Rehabilitation. He is involved with several Indigenous health initiatives including helping young people affected by the devastating Ice epidemic at Gindaja, one of the few residential rehabilitation centres in Far North Queensland. He is hoping that rehabilitated addicts will help to convince others to avoid the drug.
Despite his dedication to his work as a doctor, Mark Wenitong describes himself as primarily a musician, a talent he has passed on to all his children. Daughter Naomi rose to prominence as half of successful duo Shakaya who picked up four platinum awards for their first single “Stop Calling Me” and toured with Beyonce and Human Nature.
“Just being successful and being black for me for a while, it was really fulfilling. 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’” - Naomi Wenitong, composer-musician
Eldest son Joel, also a successful musician, joined forces with his sister to form The Last Kinection – named in honour of their grandmother. They started to write and perform music that was far more political, focusing on Indigenous self-determination.
“To get up and be singing these songs that we know nobody wants to hear, you know, not even we want to talk about some of the stuff we're talking about, you know, but we have to and that's, that's another example of how Dad influenced us.” - Naomi Wenitong
The family was plunged into crisis when Naomi and Joel suffered a terrible car crash. Naomi was pronounced dead at the scene but, miraculously, she eventually pulled through. During the darkest times in intensive care, Mark found that despite his medical training he could do no more than sing to her as she lay for weeks in a coma. The music, they believe, assisted her recovery.
“I can remember when Naomi was in the brain injury unit and I was so worried that she wasn’t going to get any better. It was devastating as a parent and I just wanted to get her out of there and take her home and just take care of her.” - Dr Mark Wenitong
Joel, who was the driver, suffered survivor guilt for some time. But it was a turning point for him and he made the decision to follow his father into medicine – graduating last month.
“This is that fork in the road, that I need to travel down this way now, and, and I felt that that's what Nan was there to tell me as well, so, so that's what I did.” - Dr Joel Wenitong
Australian Story follows the Wenitong family as they work in medicine and sing for their people and the wider community.
Australian Story: A Kind of Music – airs Monday, May 2 at 8pm on ABC & iview