DR Keith Gleeson’s recent achievement of a general practice fellowship is made all the more remarkable by the challenges he has overcome along the way – which have included racism, significant learning difficulties and unsupportive teachers.
Born in Cooma and growing up in the small remote town of Bendoc on the NSW/Victorian border, Keith comes from the Biripi Tribal Nation of Taree and also has a large Aboriginal family in Walcha and Armidale area on the Northern Tablelands.
Keith struggled with learning in the mainstream system, and following the illness and death of his father, the self-confessed ‘rebellious teenager’ ultimately left school after completing Year 10.
Following in his parents’ footsteps, Keith took a job working at the local saw mill, but a serious leg injury forced his premature retirement.
The next five years, he says, saw him drift from one relative’s home to another, looking for steady work, accommodation and a direction in life.
“It wasn’t until I was the age of 19 years when things really changed from me,” Keith said.
“I was evicted for the last time from a family member, and it was at this point in time I realised depending on my family was only holding me back.
“I was the only one who could change things,” he said.
Keith then made the decision to return to Bombala High School, to continue his education, and became the first member of his family to obtain his Higher School Certificate (HSC) – a major milestone – at the age of 21 years.
However, even in this promising chapter of his life, Keith met with resistance.
“I remember my English and History Teacher saying to me, on the steps leading to the school hall, that I did not have the ability to do any university degree and should consider lowering my expectations,” Keith said.
Keith subsequently took up a traineeship as a ranger and worked for several years in forestry, conservation and resource management.
“In 1994, I moved with my family to the Central Coast of NSW, to take up a new position with the NSW National Parks Service as a Trainee Ranger and completed my first Degree in Parks and Heritage at Charles Sturt University in Albury,” he says.
“It was the opportunity to complete my formal education, however, my ongoing exposure to workplace racism and isolation meant I was faced with the prospect that I would find it difficult building a future within the Service, and so I was forced me to seek alternative opportunities.”
Keith wasn’t looking for a career change when he visited the University of Newcastle to see what was on offer, but his initial interest in a Masters degree in Environmental Science quickly faded when he realised medicine was available for post graduate entry.
“A career in medicine was not even previously contemplated by me since I thought it was well beyond my reach,” Keith says.
“When I saw the opportunity to apply, it fired up my ambition to become a doctor, and I saw the potential for the change I could make.
“A whole new world opened up for me where I could possibly make a difference as an indigenous doctor.
“The rest, as they say is history.
“I completed my medical degree in 2006, and have recently completed my Fellowship with the Royal Australian College of General Practice,” Keith says.
Today, Keith works with the Biripi Aboriginal Medical Service in Taree and says he plans to stay there for the foreseeable future.
“It is my country, my people. It is time for me to reconnect with my community and spiritual land,” he says.
To anyone considering a career in general practice – and particularly, anyone who thinks it may be out of reach – Keith has some strong advice.
“I find general practice a rewarding career,” Keith says.
“Of course, it is also diverse and challenging.
“I was particularly dismayed to hear at the last GPET Convention in Perth that two-thirds of registrars are not exposed to chronic diseases during their training.
“If you want exposure to chronic disease, then Aboriginal health is the place to be.
“Aboriginal Health is a passion of my mine, not because I am ‘black’, but because I am at home.
“I come from this world of chaos and trauma.
“It is familiar to me.
“But somehow, I found my way out of the jungle, and now I want to inspire others to take up the opportunities I have been given,” he says.