Dr Bekkie Lee was awarded the Dr Debbie Stach Registrar of the Year Award in late 2018. This award is presented to a registrar who is outstanding in their approach to medicine and has a proven commitment to Indigenous health in the NT.
According to her peers, Bekkie is both committed to Indigenous health and possesses a remarkable ability to empathise with her patients. Her no-rubbish approach to life has bolstered her reputation for being a strong, driven, highly skilled and respected doctor. NTGPE caught up with Bekkie recently to hear her response to getting the award and to learn about her GP journey.
Congratulations on being awarded the Dr Debbie Stach Registrar of the Year Award and also on being the first Indigenous woman to receive this award. How did it feel?
Very humbling and still a bit surreal. A huge privilege. I’ve read the nomination letters and they made me cry. They were pretty amazing and made me feel like they were talking about someone else.
You have a long history of health care delivery, starting as a remote area nurse. Have you always known you wanted to work in healthcare?
Absolutely. I remember we did a time capsule when I was in grade seven in a WA primary school. Everyone had to write down what they aspired to do as an adult. Even then my aspirations were to work in health.
Where did your aspirations to work in health come from?
My grandmother, great aunt and aunt were all nurses. I did my training as a registered nurse in WA and then did hospital-based stuff and went remote after that.
What motivated you to take the leap and start studying to be a doctor?
A lot of it was about watching people come out into the remote area with no remote area experience and minimal understanding of Indigenous people and culture. As a nurse, I found that really frustrating. Even with a whole heap of extra study, I was still very restricted in relation to what I could and couldn’t do and I was always beholden to a doctor. I knew I could offer something more.
I wanted to make sure patients understood what we were about to embark on in relation to their health, and that they understood the aspects of primary health care that were going to improve their long-term health outcomes.
We talk about closing the gap and we have all these criteria that we need to meet, but at the end of the day, it’s about the people and their drive to close the gap. We can’t do it for them, they have to close the gap themselves. I feel the only way we can help them do that is through better health literacy and better health education.
You’re a proud Indigenous woman working in Indigenous health. You’re fighting arguably the hardest health battle in Australia; how do you cope with the enormity of the work ahead? Do you feel overwhelmed at times?
Absolutely. There are times when I think "Oh my god, what am I doing? I really don’t know if I can keep going." And then there are other days when I have wins – they may be only small wins, but they are enough to keep me going; to make me feel like I’ve made a tiny difference. It’s enough to spur me on to keep going; to see another patient and to work another day.
What does a win look like in your world?
I have a lady who I’ve been seeing since I started at Danila Dilba and she has severe renal disease and is looking down of the barrel of haemodialysis. She had disengaged from healthcare for about 16 months before seeing me. I’ve formed an amazing relationship with her and her long-term husband and now she never misses an appointment. We have a plan for her future which she has been involved in and understands. This is a win for me.
You have a reputation for being a strong advocate for your patients. What does this mean for you?
Being an advocate for a patient is about giving them permission to be honest and open about what they can and can’t do. We are very good at saying "I am the doctor, and this is what you need to do". The patient comes back, and no one can figure out what is going wrong. It's better for them to be forthright and say if there is something they can’t do. It’s not about being right; it’s about working together to get the best possible outcome.
I have a patient who had not taken his medication for three months. When I looked into why I found out he is homeless and can’t refrigerate his meds so he just stopped taking them. My role is to let him know there are other options. We can put in a request to the health service to pay for a non-refrigerated version. It’s about telling him that if he lets me know what his difficulties are, then I can help him.
What is your favourite part of your job?
I don’t have a favourite part because it's patient-dependent. It comes down to different patients making me love different parts of the job.
You have a family; what role have they had to play in your professional progress?
My sister came and lived up here to help while I was a medical student and I certainly would not have been able to get through the requirements of study and looking after my family without her. I think I did most of that time with little or no sleep!
Without the support of my children and husband, I would have been pushing it uphill to be able to do anything. They are integral to where I am today.
How did your family feel about you getting this award?
They were so proud, and my husband felt that I had worked really hard and deserved to be awarded.
What does your family think about your medical journey so far?
My parents are incredibly proud and especially for me to undertake medicine with three small children. I don’t think the rest of them think much differently about me, except they can get free medical advice.
How do you fit it all in – study, work, family?
I’m a bit of a no-rubbish person and I have high expectations in my personal life.
My kids are the reason I get out of bed each morning and I am very lucky to have amazing children. I’ve been committed to teaching my kids to be independent and contributing members of society. I am busy and sometimes I can’t go to school assemblies because I’m working, but they know that to have overseas holidays and go to a private school that I have to work, and they have to contribute as much as they can and use their initiative. Yesterday when I got home after a really long day, my son had done the washing and tidied up - and he is 13 and a half!
I also make sure they understand my journey is as much about them and their success. We are trying to close the gap one child at a time and the way we are doing that is through good education outcomes.
Do you have a vision of where you would like to be professionally in five years?
Someone asked me the same thing the other day. I can’t see past exams at the moment. It was the same when I was a medical student. For me, it’s about focussing on the next major hurdle and getting through that. Looking beyond that is hard.