Dr Rachel Farrelly had a very different upbringing to many of her peers in medical school.

The orthopedic surgery Trainee grew up on a farm outside the country town of Orange in New South Wales, where she was homeschooled.

While that background might not have been the typical pathway towards a career in surgery, Dr Farrelly believes it will be an asset when she becomes Australia’s first female Indigenous orthopedic surgeon.

“Moving to Sydney to study medicine was daunting and initially, I didn’t really feel like I belonged there. Most of the other medical students were from schools in Sydney, and I was from a small country town,” she says.

“But growing up in the country gave me an ability to communicate and build rapport with patients, and that is one of my strengths. I can talk in a straightforward manner and understand the complex backgrounds of patients.”

Dr Farrelly believes that along with procedural skills, communication is key to success as a surgeon.

“Medicine is all about connecting with people to the benefit of the community. The procedural side of things is valuable, but if that’s all you’re interested in, you might as well be studying veterinary medicine.”

The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) has outlined the role communication plays in health care and its importance in the care provided to Indigenous communities in its RACS Indigenous Health Position Paper. It recognises the importance of a holistic view of health—encompassing wider aspects like family, community, kinship networks and connection to land, culture, traditions, waterways, and other resources.

RACS also aims to support more First Nations people from Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand to follow in Dr Farrelly’s footsteps into a career in surgery.

Along with being a trailblazer in the Indigenous community, Dr Farrelly is the first in her family to attend university. However, it was her father who, recognising her interest in helping people in Orange, first suggested she consider a career in medicine.

She had only encountered medical professionals through her brother, who grew up with a disability and her grandmother who suffered from oesophageal cancer.
“I didn’t grow up wanting to be a surgeon. The medical profession was quite foreign to me at the time and I didn’t take much notice of it.”

After her father had planted the idea of studying medicine in her mind, she spoke to a family friend who was a general practitioner. She was advised about the rigour of the training and the steps towards becoming a doctor.

At university, Dr Farrelly was drawn to anatomy for its practicality.  She finished at the top of the class in the subject, with another student.  

She feels great satisfaction in being able to make a difference to patients through her career in the orthopedic specialty.

“I enjoy that in six weeks to three months, I can help someone go from being incapacitated to being able to walk out the door.”

Her advice for other Indigenous women interested in a career in medicine is to foster relationships with those who can provide advice and encouragement during what can be a challenging journey.

“The way I progressed was by building relationships. Our history and culture are very word-of-mouth and relationship based. My advice is to reach out to teachers and friends to get an understanding of what is involved, and to learn about the steps you need to take to get you where you want to be.

“You need to be very dedicated because during training you have to work hard and don’t always get to do some of the ordinary things like chilling out at a pub. Instead, you’ll be at the library studying.”

However, for Dr Farrelly—who would like to inspire Indigenous women to follow her into surgery— the benefits of a career in surgery are far-reaching.

“Trying to help my people is one of my drivers and to be a role model is also important to me. Our experience of health care has often been negative, and if I can change that I will be very happy,” she says.