As a member of Australia’s only set of Indigenous quintuplets, Dr Erika Chapman-Burgess had a unique cheer squad on hand when she graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine at the University of Newcastle on Thursday.
Along with her proud parents Ian and Adele, Erika was flanked by her siblings Jack, Louis, India and Georgia, to celebrate becoming the first doctor in her family and the first Indigenous doctor from her hometown of Glen Innes.
“It is still very surreal to me,” Erika said. “I knew I was going to finish, I had no doubt, but finishing medical school was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life so far.”
It is still very surreal to me.
Always interested in health, Erika dreamt from a young age of studying medicine and one day becoming a doctor.
Armed with her impressive academic record, Erika was accepted into university, beginning her medical study in 2011.
“A lot of people were shocked when I got into medicine. I didn’t tell a lot of people at first because I was scared of failure.
“I believe that it is important for Indigenous people to take initiative and obtain qualified positions as health practitioners and workers so there is the connection between Indigenous people and mainstream health services. “
By practising not only as a doctor, but as an Indigenous doctor I hope to connect to community and close the gap between communications and change the options of bushmedicine compared to mainstream medicine.”
The 24-year-old, whose language group is Ngurrabul, was born in Brisbane along with her four siblings, and raised in Glen Innes in northern NSW.
Growing up presented its own challenges for the quintuplets; however with the importance of education instilled in them by their parents from a young age, Erika decided she wanted to make a difference in her community and other regional and remote areas.
“In my life I hadn’t met an Aboriginal doctor until I came to Newcastle.
“During my time at the University of Newcastle I have met so many supportive and amazing people and it has really opened my eyes to what is possible.”
“I am very proud of my Aboriginal culture and heritage and I am hoping to become an advocate for Aboriginal health within medicine, whether that be with patients, medical students or other doctors.”
Erika said her absolute greatest inspiration is her mother Adele.
“My mum took 10 years off to raise us and then at age 40 put herself through university, studying a Bachelor of Education.
“She is a very well-respected Aboriginal Elder in her community, who has worked so hard to get where she is today. She actively promotes Aboriginal education and Aboriginal culture as a head teacher at the local high school and the wider community.
“My mother was very encouraging of us to go on to higher education. We had a very supportive environment to make sure we did the best we could in the HSC and year 12 and aim for great accomplishments.”
Erika’s brother Jack is a police officer at Moree, Louis is a police officer stationed at Tamworth, India is a program convener at the University of New England for AIME (Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience) and currently studying nursing, while Georgia is an event planner based in Sydney.
“I know I and my brothers and sisters, would not have achieved what we have so far without the backing of our parents.”
Erika said one of the highlights of her university experience and the Joint Medical Program was the clinical placements in rural and regional areas, including her hometown Glen Innes.
It was so rewarding and very special to connect with my local doctors, who have known me and my brother and sisters, since birth.
“It was so rewarding and very special to connect with my local doctors, who have known me and my brother and sisters, since birth.
“Going back to my community and other rural or remote Aboriginal communities to work with Aboriginal patients is something I dream to do as a part of my career in the future.”
Currently a first year intern with Hunter New England Area Health Service, Erika is working at Belmont District Hospital in drug and alcohol support services.
She is also looking forward to her next rotations in emergency and general medicine at The Mater Hospital; and surgery, and maternity and gynaecology, at the John Hunter Hospital.
“Running my own clinic, working as a specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology is where I would like to take my career.
“Compared to studying medicine, the pressure, hours and responsibility of being a doctor is a whole other level of challenging – which at the same time, is so very rewarding. It truly is a career that defines you. I absolutely love it.”
Along with her parents Ian and Adele, Erika said her partner of six years, Lucas, who is now her fiancé, was her utmost greatest support during medical school.
“He has really put up with so much over the entire six years, I couldn't be more grateful for his support and what he has done for me.”
Naturally, Erika has become a role model for other young people in regional areas, particularly Indigenous children.
“My mum talks about me and my siblings at school a lot,” Erika laughs. “In two years’ time she has booked all five of us in to return to our high school and address the year 12 Valedictorian night.”