Native American. Harvard graduate. Cancer survivor. Social entrepreneur. Doctor. For Dr Katie Jeffress, her journey in life has been one of academia, adventure, bravery, soul-searching, inspiration, survival, and ultimately, a passion for improving Indigenous health.
Katie is based on Bathurst Island in the remote Tiwi Islands of the Northern Territory, working towards Fellowship as a General Practitioner through NTGPE.
Originally from the United States, Katie moved to Australia in 2009 as a Harvard University graduate working on a research project looking at post-traumatic stress disorders in children who were refugees or displaced because of war or natural disasters.
Katie’s path at that stage was a beckoning career in psychiatry. At that stage she had not seriously considered becoming a GP, but that all changed at the end of 2017 while working in Lismore, New South Wales.
“I’d just finished my paeds rotation and was about to start my psychiatry training when I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer,” said Katie.
“I was in shock. I was 35 and the tumour was very large, lymph nodes were involved, and my surgeon initially told me it was inoperable – here I was, battling for my life.
“I didn’t know what to do. I had two big fears – one was death, and the other was that I would live but that my whole life would be destroyed and changed forever.”
Throughout Katie’s treatment, which included chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, and radiation, she miraculously found the drive and energy to still be able to work.
“Maintaining as much normalcy as possible was vital in helping me remain resilient and hopeful,” she said.
“My work grounded me, it allowed me to focus on others suffering over my own, and my colleagues were there to support and cheer me on.
“I had a year of treatment and did my psych training during that time, but I had a couple of unique experiences where I was managing patients who I felt needed better primary care.
“That was when I decided I might want to be a GP.”
Katie started GP training in Lismore, but soon realised she had to spread her wings from the local community, where everyone knew her as “the doctor with cancer”.
“Having been sick, I needed to travel a little and get to know the new me. When you have cancer and face death, it changes you,” she said.
Katie worked a number of contracts as a locum in mental health and ended up in the Northern Territory in June 2019, soon transferring her GP training to the NT with NTGPE.
“My interactions with NTGPE have been a totally different experience to anything I’ve had before,” she said.
“It’s been such a wonderful experience. The training has been phenomenal, the small group learning is great, and I’m getting a lot more education.
“I only want to do Aboriginal health and international development work, and I want to train in those environments. NTGPE have been so positive and supporting in helping me to achieve that.
“NTGPE also has a pastoral support office which is a very neat thing, and they know you personally and offer a lot of unique training opportunities that you won’t get anywhere else in the country.
“I think it’s an excellent place to train, especially if you have any sort of interest in remote or international health.”
One of Katie’s passions is social justice and the provision of high-quality health care to poor and marginalised people around the world. And it means more to her than most for a very personal reason.
“I soon realised when I came to the NT why I went into medicine in the first place,” she said.
“I was adopted by Caucasian parents, with my birth mother a Cherokee, but brought up in America as a white person.
“It’s the equivalent of the Stolen Generation. I never thought I could claim my roots as I didn’t grow up on a reservation, but when I came to Australia and I met a few people who were Stolen Generation and heard their stories, I thought ‘gosh, it’s just like my story’.
“My closest friends here in the NT are Aboriginal, and I feel more at home among an Aboriginal population.”
Since Katie arrived on Bathurst Island, she’s immersed herself into the local community, not only through treating patients.
“My time on Bathurst Island has been phenomenal – challenging but rewarding,” she said.
“I see patients, but I’m part of the Aboriginal women’s walking group which meets three days a week.
“I’m working with Aboriginal health practitioners to develop in-language resources to help patients during consultations.
“We’re also going around communities to interview strong women and men, and put them on YouTube with their advice for the next generation on how to stay healthy."
Katie sees General Practice as a speciality where you can build relationships with your patients, and understand what matters most to them, making health decisions with them that maximises their health and wellness as they define it.
“You don’t have to do your training in the cities and be fully Fellowed before you can experience remote health. You can do it in your own country,” she said.
Katie also has other businesses and interests – her ‘Dr Katie’ brand for holistic health, and Kollective Cartel, which sells dog supplies to help support dogs in remote Aboriginal communities in Australia.
As a breast cancer survivor, Native American, and advocate for social justice, Katie is using her life experiences and skills as a doctor to change the world for the better.
“Through my experiences, I have a much deeper understanding of what it’s like to be sick, to suffer, and to feel helpless,” she said.
“In five years, I hope I’m still alive, and doing remote work as a trained psychiatrist and GP.
“I have a strong desire to dedicate each day to helping others and improving the world. It’s my passion and what I want to do for the rest of my career.”