Known affectionately to her patients as “Doctor Sam”, Samarra Toby was among the first cohort of medicine students to graduate from Griffith University’s School of Medicine, and it seems, trailblazing continues to be a consistent theme for this remarkable Gangulu woman.
Growing up in Rockhampton, Dr Toby had dreams of becoming a doctor to help improve health outcomes for Australia’s First Peoples, but her high school careers counsellor said she wasn’t smart enough to study medicine and advised her to think about nursing or teaching instead.
“So I earned a degree in science first and was sponsored for a National Indigenous Cadetship, which saw me working in Canberra,” Dr Toby says.
“While there, I met a lot of doctors and was encouraged to apply for a degree in medicine, so I always tell kids that even if they don’t have the best grades they shouldn’t let other people’s negative opinions influence their career choice.” Dr Toby clearly remembers Elder in Residence, Uncle Graham Dillon, being on the interview panel during the application process at Griffith.
“Seeing his face, and knowing that the course content had been culturally adapted for Indigenous students, I knew then that Griffith was the place for me,” she says.
Making the grade Dr Toby says the road to academic success was made easier by the strong bond between fellow students, the open door policy at Griffith and the fact that School of Medicine educators demonstrably cared about students’ progress.
“We were a relatively small group, so we definitely benefited from one-on-one time with staff,” she explains.
“I had the most amazing time, established strong friendships during those years and even though I graduated in 2008, I just recently received a beautiful letter from the Dean of Medicine, who wrote just to stay in touch.
“None of my friends who studied at other universities received such a letter.”
Being pregnant during her intern year was a challenge, but positively shaped her career direction.
“My son, Arty, was born that year and since general practice allows more flexibility I decided to pursue an RACGP fellowship after graduation and go home to Rockhampton to work as a GP in my own community,” says Dr Toby.
An inherent sense of community as family leads many First Peoples students to seek employment in their homelands after graduation. That was certainly the case for Dr Toby, who comes from a small community with limited access to quality healthcare. Returning to where she could make a difference was the obvious choice.
When Arty was four years old, however, he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and the reason for going home became the reason she had to leave again. Dr Toby and her husband, Massey, packed up and moved to Brisbane for better access to ASD services.
Mother of invention
Dr Toby has reduced her clinical hours, but still sees patients at Brisbane’s Hawthorne clinic three days a week. She has remained in touch with her patients in Rockhampton and some of them travel to Brisbane to see her.
As her family focused on ways to improve Artie’s life, Dr Toby devoted many sleepless nights to researching therapeutic strategies for him.
“I considered extra training for myself through an eight-week course that cost $30,000 and it became apparent that not many parents would be able to afford the cost of some of these ASD resources,” she explains.
“Three years later, I’ve learned that every child with ASD is different, many have truly brilliant minds and that progress is progress, no matter how small.
“It became my mission to help make ASD resources more affordable and share what I’ve learned on my own journey with Artie, so I have produced a package called Dr Sam’s Autism Toolkit.”
The package includes a book, online resources and an app to help motivate and engage children with ASD and will be available from www.drsamsautismtoolkit.com
Dr Toby is also working on another toolkit to empower GPs for better diagnosis and treatment of ASD in children.
“This is especially important for Indigenous kids, who are more likely to be diagnosed late or missed altogether,” she explains.
“Earlier diagnosis makes a big difference to developmental gains and educational outcomes for children with ASD.
While services like the Autism Centre of Excellence and Autism Spectrum Disorder Clinic, at Griffith University provide valuable support, there’s still much to be done for rural families,” says Dr Toby.
Her education and career success proves that knowledge is power and persistence pays off, so Dr Toby is always looking for ways to grease the wheels of progress, both in Indigenous health and ASD awareness.