Dr Mikayla Couch is a proud Bundjalung woman and an Obstetrics and Gynaecology registrar currently working at Lismore Base Hospital in New South Wales. Dr Couch appears regularly in social and web media advocating for better Indigenous health. She has an Instagram page, and her podcast will be launching in December.

Dr Couch wanted to study surgery from a young age because she wanted to combine science with helping people, particularly in her own community. Her grandmother developed breast cancer at age 75, and refused to go to hospital. “So many of my people are terrified of hospitals. They are regarded as places full of white people where you go to die,” Dr Couch said. “Maybe if there had been an Indigenous doctor available to help my nan, she would have received treatment for her cancer.”

Dr Couch is a recipient of the RACS ASC Award, which provided funding so she could attend the 2015 College's Annual Scientific Congress (ASC) as a final year medical student. The Award was invaluable because it enabled her to network and meet with many surgeons, attend educational programs, and it helped to demystify the activities of the College. It helped build Dr Couch’s confidence in pursuing a surgical career. When she explained her history and commitment to improving the health of Aboriginal Australians to other attendees and speakers, she recalls being met with interest and encouragement.

Dr Couch became an unaccredited Neurosurgical Trainee at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, but left after three months due to burnout, despite supportive supervisors who tried to dissuade her from leaving. She had two car accidents within a week due to falling asleep at the wheel. “The hours were insane. For example, I was rostered on for 21 days straight with one weekend off and then I worked another six weeks straight with one day off. We have to keep talking about this until it changes.”

Dr Couch believes that unaccredited Trainees have been left behind and lack the workplace protection available to others. It’s a gap that she is concerned will discourage other Indigenous doctors from become surgeons. “I would love to come back to surgery one day,” Dr Couch said, “it’s my dream.”

While Australia is doing well in terms of policy development around improving Indigenous Australians’ health, in reality there are still many barriers that prevent people from accessing and receiving quality medical care. “I really like the Closing the Gap framework,” Dr Couch said, “but we need more action until Indigenous people have the same longevity in life expectancy and the same standards in living, employment and education as non-Indigenous people.”

Moving to Obstetrics and Gynaecology meant she could keep up her surgical skills and learn new skills. Colleagues often turn to her for advice, and she feels her presence has an informal influence in encouraging more positive behaviour around Aboriginal patients. She often encourages other Aboriginal people to study medicine and pursue careers in health.

Dr Couch thinks most surgeons want to help, but they’re not sure how to go about it. They can join the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association (AIDA) as an associate member, attend conferences, and access training and educational material. Dr Couch acknowledges the generous support given by RACS to AIDA’s conferences in encouraging Indigenous doctors to consider training as surgeons.

In the meantime, Dr Couch is excited and looking forward to the launch of her podcast, which will be called BLA.C.K Medicine (the ‘c’ is emphasised as an act of reclaim; it represents colonisation). Dr Couch hopes the 30-minute episodes will have a broad audience with guests such as Dr Justin Cain, a Gomeroi and Yuin man and a Vascular Surgery unaccredited registrar, and Professor Kelvin Kong, a proud Worimi man, the first Aboriginal surgeon in Australia, and an Otolaryngologist, Head and Neck surgeon. She hopes RACS will talk about their outreach program and the work being done to encourage Indigenous surgeons.

If you would like to keep in touch with Dr Couch and her work, follow her on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/dr.aboriginal.woman/