Humans of Medicine – Kumail Jaffry

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m a member of the Hazara people, an ethnic group in Pakistan, and I came to Australia with my family as a refugee. At the moment, I’m studying medicine in third year and doing my placement in Mildura where I grew up. I did my undergraduate degree in Biomedical Science back in Melbourne and lived away from my family. Now, I’m back in Mildura and I love the weather, I love the people – it’s really good to be back here. 

Outside of university, I used to volunteer for Monash Health, where I met a lot of refugees and people from different backgrounds. These days, I’ve found enjoyment in volunteering to teach young kids at a community school on Sundays, which is currently being run online due to coronavirus. I was asked to teach after helping out at Hazara community group services, and I think it’s given me more opportunities to improve my communications skills and get to meet new people. 

Could you explain a little of the situation facing the Hazara people in Pakistan?

Over the last ten to twenty years, we have seen many Hazara refugees coming to Australia from Pakistan because they are being persecuted by many terrorist organisations. They have suffered so much. I remember that in every street in the city [I came from], there have been people killed. I’ve lost people from my house, I’ve lost friends, my friends have lost their friends, and they’ve lost people from their houses. There’s not a single street that hasn’t lost someone. They’re constantly being persecuted, the Hazara, and now they’ve come to different countries like Europe, the US or Australia. A lot of them came to Dandenong, and there’s a big Afghan community there now.

What has your personal journey been like?

Like many of the Hazara who came to Australia to escape persecution and terrorism, I arrived here when I was very young with my family. I remember I didn’t speak any English. I went to a community centre in Mildura and then some of the secondary colleges, including Mildura Senior College, where I did my VCE. From there, I went to Monash University to study biomedical science and through that and volunteering for Monash Health, my love for medicine increased. And now I’m here.

What challenges did you face in Australia as a refugee?

It took a long time to learn English. When you first come to Australia and they put you in a mainstream school, it’s a bit difficult to understand the content, which resulted in disruption to my education. It took me around two years to actively engage with the community and start to become more fluent.

I also think not having an extensive connection with other people is something that affects a lot of refugees, even now. Although I was lucky to have access to a lot of other resources, there are asylum seekers who don’t have access to basic human rights such as the ability to go to the GP or use Medicare. I think that’s something that is detrimental to the health of a lot of asylum seekers.

Fortunately, in every step of my life my parents have had my back. Back in high school, I also had wonderful teachers who shared their life experiences and stories and guided me in what sort of path to take. I really appreciate that.

Are there any aspects of refugee health that the average student might not be aware of?

This is pretty relevant to me. In Mildura we’ve been seeing a lot of refugees coming in because it’s a small town, it’s easier to get around, it’s easier to get to know people and there’s a lot of organisations that can help you as a refugee. 

For example, the fact that a lot of the asylum seekers don’t have access to Medicare cards because their Visa applications have been rejected by the department is something that affects a lot of asylum seekers. Because of that, we’re seeing a lot of refugees coming straight to the ED instead of going through the usual process where a GP assesses you and decides whether your issue needs referral to the ED or other specialists. In Mildura, asylum seekers don’t have their Medicare card and don’t have access to healthcare. So they actually wait until their health deteriorates severely, and then come to the ED straight away without going to the GP. I think that’s something that negatively impacts the hospital, Australia overall, and the health of the asylum seekers themselves.

What has been your favourite moment in medicine so far?

On my first day at clinical placement in Mildura, I was allocated to the general surgery division and I was asked to scrub in. The first patient was a two-year-old who presented with hernia. It was my first time being part of that surgery. I was a bit nervous given the circumstances, but I got through it in the end with the help of my registrar. 

I had never been a part of a surgery before and to be helping a surgeon do a procedure on a two-year-old – it touched me emotionally. That’s something I keep in mind, and which has sparked my interest into possibly doing surgery in the future.

Where do you plan to take your career?

The relationship that I’ve made with Mildura is just wonderful, and I’d love to come back. Recently, we’ve lost a huge amount of doctors in Mildura, which is, of course, a bad thing for the community. I hope to see a lot of doctors coming back in the future, and would love to be part of that movement. The top two specialties I’ve got on my list are general practice or being a general surgeon.

I’m loving what I’m doing at the moment. There’s not a day that I feel 100% confident about my knowledge in medicine. I’m always thinking back and reflecting on the times that I didn’t know things in hospital. So I’m always learning, and I love that about medicine.

What changes would you like to see in medicine?

The hierarchy that we see in hospital. The structure is understandable, because someone needs to be responsible for everything that is happening with the patients, and that chain from the consultant down to the registrars and the interns and so on is how we do it. I do, however, think that the healthcare system would benefit from a more horizontal structure, so that we don’t approach medicine with such a rigid chain of command.

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