Joanna Kaczmarek

Bachelor of Medicine – Bachelor of Surgery student, Joanne Kaczmarek has one truly inspiring story. Having grown up on Badu Island in the Torres Strait, Jo has since moved around a bit and has quite the story to tell. She was educated in Townsville; lived in Canberra for ten years; had the opportunity to spend three years living and working in Yangon, Myanmar, as well as in the beautiful island nation of Nauru. But despite her travels and strong connection to the Torres Strait, Jo considers Townsville to be home to her and her family, and doesn’t think she would be able to study medicine anywhere else.

Jo's Journey - as told by Joanne Kaczmarek

Jo's inspirational story

Joanne sharing her story at the 2019 JCU Indigenous Student Award Night

Jo’s Journey to Medicine

My journey to medicine probably doesn’t fit the common narrative. Studying medicine isn’t the fulfilment of a lifelong goal of mine. In fact, it wasn’t even on my radar until a few years ago. Let me rewind a little bit further…I graduated from JCU (for the first time) with a Bachelor of Commerce (Accounting) in 2005, and after moving to Canberra and spending a decade in the Foreign Service, I found myself at a career crossroads. I knew I needed a change but I wasn’t completely sure what I wanted to do. I quit my job, moved back home to Townsville to be closer to my family and took 6 months off to do some soul-searching.

During that time, I reflected on my lifelong interest in the sciences and in health specifically. I connected that with my passion for serving my community and my concern for the ongoing disparity in health outcomes for Indigenous peoples in Australia (disparities that were evident to me not just in the Closing the Gap and health reports released by the Government, but within my own line of sight in my family and my community). Needless to say, this process was leading me down the path of entering the health sector, but in what capacity? I really wasn’t sure.

It was also around that time that I read about the death in custody in WA of a 22-year-old Aboriginal woman known at the time as Miss Dhu. I was shaken to my core as I read about the repeated failures of our health system to provide Miss Dhu with the medical treatment that could have saved her life. In the midst of my soul searching and reflection, this young woman’s story was what drove me to pursue medicine.

So, inspired by the Epictetus quote: “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do”; I said that I would become a doctor, contacted the IERC for advice and enrolled in JCU’s Diploma of Higher Education (Health) to get the prerequisites I needed to apply to medicine. I then spent the next 12 months with my eyes on the prize and after a nerve-wracking application process I was accepted into JCU’s Bachelor of Medicine/Bachelor of Surgery, starting in 2018. I’m now in my 3rd year and, as challenging as it is, I absolutely love it.

A strong support network

JCU provides so many amazing supports to students, from its top-notch facilities and world-class staff to the fantastic study spaces and the all-encompassing student support services that are there for those times when your personal circumstances get in the way of your studies. I feel fortunate to have received mentorship early on in my studies, to have access to tutoring through the IERC, and to have ongoing pastoral support from the wonderful staff at the IERC and the School of Medicine. JCU academic and support scholarships have helped me immensely, and I am particularly grateful to the Wood Family, the IERC, the School of Medicine, and the Townsville Bulletin for supporting me along the way.

And finally, a very important (and special), source of support, help and encouragement is my study group, John and Angela, who have been on this crazy journey with me from the first day of classes. I’m lucky to have met kindred spirits with strengths and weaknesses that complement my own – they lift me up when I need it and I hope I do the same for them. Medicine is, after all, a team sport.

Winning the ‘Placement Lottery’

Jo on placement on TI

Jo on placement on Thursday Island

Late last year I won the placement lottery (so to speak), and I was lucky enough to spend four weeks on placement at the Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service on Thursday Island (TI). Not only did I have the opportunity to gain valuable experience in a remote hospital setting, I was also able to return to the place where I grew up, to spend time with family I hadn’t seen in many years and to find out if it was realistic to have the goal of working as a Doctor in the Torres Strait after graduation.

This experience invigorated me and strengthened my motivations to study medicine. I met family who worked in the health sector and learned that my Aka (Grandmother) was a nurse; I learned about the amazing and important work done by allied health teams in the Torres Strait; and I received so much encouragement and support from family and community, who told me how important it is that I complete my studies and become a Doctor. As if that wasn’t enough, my Mum came to visit me on TI while I was on placement and she brought my daughter with her. It was the first time in 20 years my Mum had been to the Torres Strait and it was the first time ever for my daughter. It was so special.

While on placement I learned that it is not only realistic to have the goal of working in the Torres Strait in the future, but that the community there truly supports my efforts and wants to see me succeed and return to the Torres Strait as a Doctor.

I walked away from this experience with so much hope for the future, because while there are very serious health issues in my community, including a high prevalence of chronic disease, I know that I can make a contribution to closing the gap in health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

A home away from home

I am a regular at the IERC: I drop in there several times a week and I study there every weekend. I mentioned before that JCU is a world-class university with so many great study spaces and places for collaboration between students, but I find that there’s something really special about ‘The Centre’.

It energises me and I feel welcomed there. At home even. The design is amazing, the facilities are top notch and the staff make everyone feel welcome. I feel supported there by staff and students who model the cultural values I grew up with, and where I’m surrounded by people who share similar experiences and who are on a similar journey to me. This congruence of culture, values and shared aspirations helps me to keep going when times are tough. The IERC has played such a big part in my journey and I hope to ‘pay it back’ someday, somehow.

Jo on placement on TI

Jo on Thursday Island

Onwards and upwards

My goal after graduation is to become a Rural GP. JCU’s medical program has a strong focus on producing work-ready graduates on this trajectory, so I feel well placed and confident that my aspirations match my degree.

I hope one day to practice medicine in rural and remote towns in Queensland and to go back to the Torres Strait as a Doctor. Beyond that, I believe that my future in medicine lies somewhere at the intersection of Western and traditional medicine.

I believe strongly that Indigenous ways will be the future of medicine. Concepts like holistic care, individualised medicine, the social determinants of health, patient-centred care, the use of bush medicines, and healing at home – these are all relatively new and emerging concepts in medicine that align with ancient Indigenous ways, and I’m excited about the prospect of contributing to this paradigm shift.

In the longer-term I plan to set up my own practice: a holistic health service that is focused on optimizing health not just treating disease.

Jo’s advice to others

As a mature-aged student, mother and wife, knowing that I needed a change in my career and starting over again was scary. I can say, though, from my current vantage point as a third-year student, that I’m so grateful for that experience and proud of myself for making this choice.

So, I say to anyone considering studying, and particularly to mature-aged students, that it’s never too late to go to university or to pursue the career you want. It may not be a walk in the park. The responsibilities of being an adult, maintaining relationships and caring for your children among others, are definite challenges one must overcome to walk down this path, but in many ways studying as a mature-aged student is also easier. This has been my experience.

Joanne Kaczmarek

A truly inspirational story

I know how to put in work, I had a career and I learned many of life’s lessons along the way. I know myself better now and I know what I want more now than I did during my previous stint as a student. This helps me to stay focused and motivated towards my goal.

I’m more confident about relying on the supports at JCU and the IERC in particular, and asking for help when I need it.

If you have a family member or know someone who’s thought about studying, but feels as though it’s too late for them, please encourage them to give it a try.

There’s a saying: do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.

Well, I think it applies to studying medicine because even though it is very demanding, if you’re passionate about it and have a truly compelling reason for wanting to become a doctor, the sacrifices required don’t seem like a big deal.

I’d also say that you should reach out when you need help and use the resources you have within your reach at JCU. There are so many supports at JCU, at the IERC and at the School of Medicine – the staff are always there and quick to provide encouragement and a learning environment that helps you to do your best work, and to help you keep going when it gets hard.