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Mooroopna’s Luke Burchill is Australia’s first Aboriginal cardiologist

By Charmayne Allison

Dr Luke Burchill dreams of the day he is no longer a “first”.

The day people are no longer surprised by an Aboriginal neurologist, surgeon or, in his case, cardiologist.

But until that day comes, Luke, a proud Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung man from the Atkinson family – and the first Aboriginal cardiologist in Australia – plans to stay on the frontlines.

Striving for a future where Aboriginal people lead the way towards better health outcomes for their communities.

“Right now, my worlds have collided with COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter,” Luke said.

“The protests are drawing attention to what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have always known – that the intersection between racism and adverse life outcomes is real.

“The systems that perpetuate these inequities need to be everyone’s concern – not only those who currently fall between the cracks.”

Luke was born at Goulburn Valley Base Hospital in 1974 to an English father and Aboriginal mother.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, and that was certainly the case for Luke, growing up on Yorta Yorta country in Mooroopna.

Surrounded by a large Aboriginal community, it seems every second person he met was a relative, his mum often sitting him down to explain the complex kinship networks.

Some of Luke’s happiest childhood memories were of summers camping in the Barmah forest with his extended family, where he was instilled with a strong sense of culture.

“Looking back now, I realise just how important those years were, spending time on country and hearing from my elders,” he said.

Luke Burchill's grandmother Iris Atkinson and mother Marlene Burchill (nee Atkinson) to the right of Iris, with the rest of their family.

Luke's mother Marlene Burchill, who completed a Master of Social Work in her 50s and passed on a strong work ethic, was an early inspiration.

As was his grandmother, Iris Atkinson.

Each year, she would spend three to six months with Luke's family, looking after him while his parents were at work.

A paraplegic and diabetic, her time with Luke gave him his first brush with medicine as he helped check her blood sugar and watched when the local GP dropped by for a check-up.

“Through these experiences, I started to relate to healthcare. And I saw the therapeutic impact nan’s GP had, not just on her but the whole family,” he said.

From early on, Luke was destined to walk two roads.

As he was fair-skinned, his cousins would joke with him, calling him a ‘‘Gubbarigini’’.

‘‘My cousins would joke that I was a Gubbarigini — meaning a white blackfella,’’ Luke wrote in a recent article for the University of Melbourne.

But he knew from day one Aboriginal blood ran through his veins.

“I may be visibly white, but I don’t relate as much to my English culture because it’s not where I grew up,” Luke said.

“I have often felt like a fly on the wall, hearing people talking about others in my community in very disparaging ways, just walking down the street with my darker-skinned family members.

“People sometimes regard my identifying as Aboriginal as being a choice. For me, it’s not a choice, it’s just who I am.”

Luke Burchill with some of his extended family.

But it wasn’t until he was in Mooroopna Primary School that Luke started to become painfully aware of the gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

“Whenever we had religious instruction classes, a Koori worker would drop in and ask if there were any Aboriginal students in the class,” Luke recalled.

“My cousins and I would go with the support worker, who would then chat to us about Koori culture and history.”

Back then, Luke saw it as a vital opportunity for his culture to be validated in a school setting.

Now, he realises it was the wrong way around.

“I already understood my culture, I had been raised learning about it,” he said.

“But the rest of my school wasn't learning about the history of the local Aboriginal community.

“I call that the ‘first gap'.

“When we talk about closing the gap, we need to start in early education – sharing the true history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country.”

Heading to Mooroopna High, Luke watched as many of his cousins dropped out of school, one by one, throughout the years.

Looking back, he believes this was a sign of institutional racism in how Aboriginal students were identified and supported, contributing to educational disparity seen today.

“Being fair-skinned, in many ways I was quite privileged, I didn't suffer the same racism my darker-skinned cousins experienced,” Luke said.

“I was also blessed to have a very supportive family home environment where education was prioritised as something to strive for and a way to break the cycle.”

When he was 16, Luke travelled to South Africa for a one-year exchange on a Rotary scholarship.

Making it clear he wouldn’t attend a whites-only school, he was placed at one of the country’s few mixed-race schools, slotted into the so-called “coloured” community.

He still looks back on that as the year that saved his life.

“Mooroopna was so difficult to live in – in the 70s and 80s, being an Aboriginal person was the worst thing you could be in town,” he said.

“As a 16-year-old, I don’t think I realised how much my mental health was suffering, living there.

“But going to South Africa helped me see there was a whole, wide world out there full of diverse people and opinions.

“Once I recognised I wasn't going to be defined entirely by my experiences up to that age, there was a great sense of freedom.”

Returning home after a year, Luke attended Shepparton High in Year 12 before heading to the University of Melbourne to study medicine and surgery.

Graduating in 1999, he completed a PhD before travelling overseas to undertake postdoctoral fellowships that took him from “the bench, to the bedside, to the population”.

Training with world-leading clinicians and scientists in Canada and the USA, it would be 10 years before Luke returned to home soil.

He is now based in Melbourne, working at the Royal Melbourne Hospital as an adult congenital heart disease specialist and filling in any spare time as an associate professor at the University of Melbourne.

Through his work, Luke has witnessed firsthand the heartbreaking health gaps between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians – particularly in cardiovascular health.

At 45, he has already outlived many other Aboriginal men and women who have died from heart disease.

Indigenous Australians between the ages of 35-44 – emerging elders – are nine to 12 times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

It’s the leading cause of death and the largest contributor to the health gap for Aboriginal Australians.

And yet, more than 50 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aren’t screened for cardiovascular disease.

Of those screened, only 50 per cent receive guideline-based treatment.

Among those who make it to hospital, indigenous people are significantly less likely to have a coronary angiogram or have blocked coronary vessels fixed.

Through his current research study, Luke hopes to answer the one overwhelming question raised by these shocking statistics: why?

“The reason behind this is not entirely clear,” he said.

“Is it racism? Institutional bias? Is there a reason ATSI people are less likely to undertake the testing needed to understand your risk?

“We need to – and we can – close the gap through data-driven research.”

Luke said the focus of most Aboriginal health research in indigenous communities in remote areas could account for missed opportunities to improve cardiovascular outcomes.

Recent data revealed while 80 per cent of Aboriginal people lived in cities (compared to seven per cent in remote areas), they accounted for just 11 per cent of research from 2004 to 2009.

Luke said a deficit view of indigenous Australians as “problematic people” also needed to be tackled before health gaps could be closed.

“As described by Aboriginal leader Professor Maggie Walter, there is an overwhelming focus on the five ‘D's of Indigenous Australian data: disparity, deprivation, disadvantage, dysfunction and difference,” he said.

“A new generation of Aboriginal researchers and leaders is changing the script, ready to take a strengths and solutions-focused approach, rather than a deficit view.”

Luke is set to bring this new approach to his old stomping ground, working with Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-operative on a ground-up project introducing new technology for blood glucose management.

“We could have easily published more research on the higher diabetes rates in the Victorian Aboriginal community,” Luke said.

“But so what? What are we going to do about it? We sat down with the community and discussed what is currently available and what's on the horizon.

“And the community has chosen a solutions-focused approach.”

It has been 20 years since Luke returned to Mooroopna.

A town which provided a backdrop to so much heartache in his early years.

But which he hopes, now, will be a place of healing.

“I'm really keen to come back and visit the community, because I can tell the culture is very strong and proudly communicated these days in the Yorta Yorta land,” Luke said.

“When I was growing up, we were still finding our voice.

“Now, we’re finally speaking up.”