Indigenous surgeon’s AM honour a sign to do more

by MedicMall Admin


Newcastle surgeon Professor Kelvin Kong has discovered that it pays to check your emails.

The proud Worimi man, who became Australia’s first Indigenous surgeon, almost missed the news he was being made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the 2024 Australia Day honours list.

“I get about 100 emails a day, and I don’t often read all of them, so this one had been sitting there for about a week before I opened it – I thought, ‘this looks important, I’d better read it’,” Prof Kong said, laughing.

He said he felt a “mix of emotions” after learning about the award.

“I am honoured and humbled, but I recognise it’s not a personal award, it’s always a collaboration with my community,” Prof Kong said.

“They’ve been so dedicated to my success, and you know, any time I get back into the community, anything I’ve done automatically belongs to them as well.”

Prof Kong, an Otolaryngology, Head and Neck surgeon, is associated with the University of Newcastle’s School of Medicine and Public Health. 

He is a Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) and practises at Newcastle’s John Hunter Hospital and John Hunter Children’s Hospital, Maitland Private Hospital and Lingard Private Hospital.

He was quick to point out that he was Australia’s first Indigenous surgeon only in the “Western sense”.

“We had traditional healers back in the day, who performed some procedures,” Prof Kong said.

He added it was “actually pretty embarrassing to be the first”.

“All the firsts I know are my friends and contemporaries – my sister is the first Indigenous obstetrician,” he said.

“Which is great for my kids, they just think that all black fellas overachieve, but the first Māori to do this was in the 1800s – in Australia, it’s all modern-day stuff, which really demonstrates the lack of opportunity and the level of oppression that we have experienced.”

Prof Kong is passionate about children’s health, particularly the impact that poor hearing can have on educational outcomes.

“My patients and their parents are all aware of this issue,” he said. 

“But I do think in a broader sense, we don’t make it known as much as we should, and we know that in vulnerable communities kids who aren’t hearing properly are maybe not behaving great, and then they’re excluded from school.

“When really, all they need is a big cuddle and some one-on-one time, and someone to say, ‘Hey you’ve got this going on, let’s fix that’. 

“If you start with a bit of love, that’s so much better and I think that’s something I got from my Mum.”

His mother, Grace Kinsella, was a pioneering Indigenous registered nurse. His older twin sisters Marlene and Marilyn are doctors and their father, Kong Cheok Seng, a Malaysian Chinese man, is also a doctor. 

“My ultimate dream is that any kid who wants to achieve can do so, regardless of their postcode or their race,” Prof Kong said.

“And we need to go back and start earlier in the zero to three age group – fix their ears, do lots of reading to them.

“I’m mentoring so many amazing kids – I want to have this interview again in 10 years’ time so we can talk about how much they have done, and changed, and made a difference to the world.

“The other thing I find really bizarre, is that I’ve now got these white, private school, privileged, amazingly talented students asking me for advice on their career – if I had told my Nan that would be happening, back in the day, she would have laughed at me.

“But that’s the beauty of it – seeing the pride my own kids have in who they are, and the friends they have. It’s a different world for them.”

Later this year, Prof Kong will chair the OMOZ 2024 conference, a forum for all researchers, clinical practitioners and health workers investigating and treating chronic ear disease in Australia. 

“This is the first conference we’ve been able to have since COVID, it’s going to be amazing,” he said.

“We’ll be having an on-country day, so that means it’s shoes off, and it all levels the playing field, so we can just yarn about what needs to be done with all the attendees – a really eclectic, diverse group of people with a solid professional core.”

And while starting the year with an AM was an impressive way to bring in January, Professor Kong said he had no plans to stop and look back.

“I don’t think this is a chance to reflect, it’s a sign to keep going, to do more,” he said.


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