From accidental doctor to Indigenous health trailblazer

Stephanie Gardiner |

Christine Jeffries-Stokes is being recognised for improving Indigenous health outcomes.
Christine Jeffries-Stokes is being recognised for improving Indigenous health outcomes.

Christine Jeffries-Stokes became an outback doctor almost by accident, having longed to work as an artist by the sea.

“I wanted to go to art school and do ceramics and sculpture, but there was a mix up with my Year 12 results and I ended up in medicine,” Dr Jeffries-Stokes said.

“I thought I’d probably fail after the first year, but my dad would be glad I tried.”

Dr Jeffries-Stokes, a pediatrician in the Goldfields of Western Australia, has been appointed a Member (AM) of the Order of Australia for exemplary work in her unexpected career.

Water drips from a tap
A higher-than-expected rate of renal disease was linked to poor-quality drinking water. (Jason O’BRIEN/AAP PHOTOS)

After attending too many funerals for people who died early from diabetes and kidney failure, Dr Jeffries-Stokes launched groundbreaking research to investigate the high burden of disease in the community.

A team of health workers, including her sister-in-law Wongutha and Mulba-Ngadu woman Annette Stokes, spent years assessing adults and children in 11 small towns and remote Indigenous communities.

Their research found the higher-than-expected rate of renal disease was likely due to the poor quality of the region’s drinking water.

“The water in many remote areas is pretty terrible and it’s probably a very significant contributing factor not only to kidney disease and diabetes, but all the other diseases we talk about in closing the gap,” Dr Jeffries-Stokes told AAP.

Earning the trust of Indigenous families was crucial, so the Western Desert Kidney Health Project team used art, music and dance to create deep connections.

A group of children formed a choir, which toured to Perth and played at the Fairbridge folk festival, more than 700km from their homes.

“Many of the kids … had never been beyond Kalgoorlie before,” Dr Jeffries-Stokes said.

“They got to have the incredible experience of being on stage and having applause, which for Aboriginal children is very rare, especially from a non-Aboriginal audience.”

She is one of several Australians recognised in the King’s Birthday Honours List, revealed on Sunday, for their dedication to improving the lives of Indigenous people.

Commissioner Kevin Bell
Kevin Bell has been honoured after presiding over the Yoorrook Justice Commission. (Diego Fedele/AAP PHOTOS)

Former Victorian Supreme Court Justice Kevin Bell has been appointed Officer (AO) of the Order of Australia for distinguished service in the law and human rights.

Professor Bell presided over the Yoorrook Justice Commission, Australia’s first truth-telling inquiry investigating social, political and economic injustices committed against Victorian Aboriginal people.

Edward Monaei has been awarded the Medal (OAM) of the Order of Australia for service to the Indigenous community, particularly through rugby league in Queensland.

Dr Jeffries-Stokes, a lecturer at the University of Western Australia’s Rural Clinical School, hopes her honour will draw attention to health inequities in remote regions.

“It’s the lives of children we’re talking about,” she said.

13YARN 13 92 76

Lifeline 13 11 14