From the hot winds and red dust in the Pilbara to the Jacaranda trees that spill purple flowers across the University of Sydney, Yarlalu Nanmurr Thomas is a man of passion, pride and power paving the path to better health for those living in regional and remote Western Australia.

At just 21-years-old, Mr Thomas has been awarded the 2020 WA Young Australian of the Year.

Mr Thomas has a strong sense of culture and pride for his family as well as the path he has been able to follow.

“My grandmother … tells me stories about how she walked out of the desert for the first time and remembers seeing white faces and camels. It’s extraordinary to think just two generations down the line I’m having such a different time,” Mr Thomas said.

“She spent much of her life, along with my grandfather, fighting for equal wages up on pastoral stations up in the northwest … they had a hard time. Credit to them for fighting back for their rights to give me that next step along the line.”

Born in Derby, WA, the Nyangumarta Pitjikarli man grew up in Warralong, however, due to his mother’s career as a native title lawyer, Mr Thomas moved around, attending around nine primary schools.

The family settled in Perth after Mr Thomas secured a MADALAH Scholarship to attend Scotch College.

MADALAH, a not-for-profit organisation, offers remote and regional Indigenous students Secondary and Tertiary scholarships to leading schools across WA and Australian universities.

“It was a big shift, in terms of cultural norms. It’s the case for a lot of children who go to Perth for school or major cities across Australia,” Mr Thomas said.

“It’s something that we had to learn … realising some things aren’t quite the same as what you would do back home. In Western society when shaking hands, you look someone in their eyes and firm grip whereas in Aboriginal culture it is quite inappropriate to be doing that to people.”

“We sort of had to learn to walk in both worlds, being away from family there’s the issue of being homesick and being away from Country and language. I was fortunate to have that family support with my mum and brother there.”

However, feeling the itch to go, Mr Thomas was awarded the MADALAH Tertiary Scholarship and set off to the University of Sydney to study a double Bachelor of Medicine and Medical Science – although medicine wasn’t his first love.

“I was footy obsessed like many Aboriginal kids are. The dream was to go and play AFL for the West Coast Eagles, but realised I was made of glass and got injured too much so gave it up for education,” Mr Thomas laughed.

“It was good to learn at that early stage to come up with that Plan B. I guess education was a key thing that stood out. Growing up around family who were affected by the Indigenous health statistics as they stand, I thought that going back to my community with a medical degree and helping those who have been in my life for so long would be a way to give back.”

Finishing his undergraduate degrees, Mr Thomas returned home to his family and was awarded the inaugural Roy Hill Community Foundation Fellowship.

“It was an amazing opportunity to become one of the first Indigenous Australian fellows in rare genetic diseases … I thought it would be great to open the realm of rare genetic diseases and find out if it’s something I enjoy. I took it as an opportunity and I’m very grateful that I did.”

Through the Fellowship, Mr Thomas connected with clinical geneticist, Dr Gareth Baynam who heads the Pilbara Face Program, which aims to tackle severe, complex and undiagnosed diseases.

“He taught me that in terms of rare genetic diseases, Indigenous Australians are left behind … it’s not because they are suffering of higher rates of mutation or more complex diseases, it is simply because the journey for them to get to the specialised healthcare they need is so round about and so long,” Mr Thomas said.

Through his connection with Dr Baynam, Mr Thomas launched the UNESCO-endorsed Lyfe Languages Champions Program which works towards translating complex medical terminology into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages to improve the line of communication between healthcare services and First Nations peoples.

“Having experience with family and the healthcare system in rural and remote Australia, there is a lot of mistrust and negative attitudes towards the healthcare system – a lot of people don’t want to go,” Mr Thomas said.

“In my community, English is a second or third language, it is quite hard to understand what is going on … I think growing to be a doctor in future, being able to speak to my patients in language is something that I want to do. The program was set up to retain and empower languages for medical benefits.”

“We’re hoping that we can develop this into an app so we can develop culturally welcoming language in the healthcare system, where anyone non-Indigenous can click a button on their phone and communicate a phrase, a welcome or what might be happening or what examination.”

Mr Thomas also works with the WA Register of Developmental Anomalies, Genetic Services WA and Cliniface. He has also volunteered with Fair Game, an organisation that works in remote communities.

“The mentors I’ve had through that program have been incredible. Dr John van Bockxmeer, who founded the program … he got me engaged through looking at getting recycled old sporting equipment out to communities like my own. Fair Game have supported me and stuck by me ever since 2013.”

Mr Thomas has transferred to the University of Western Australia to begin his postgraduate studies a little closer to home.

“My Country is right out in the desert Country, it’s a seven to eight-hour drive from Port Hedland. The community of Mijijimaya that my grandfather built, but no one lives there anymore. My name comes from the hill where he was born,” Mr Thomas said.

“Again, it’s that whole idea that two generations down the line I have these opportunities.”

Mr Thomas was incredibly humbled and proud of being the WA Young Australian of the Year for 2020.

“In my view of myself I haven’t done anything amazing; I’ve just been surrounded by such amazing people who have provided me with support, kindness and opportunities, and I’ve just simply taken them,” he said.

With at least four more years of study on his plate and a world of experience in his grasp, Mr Thomas is set to do incredible things.

“What I want in the years coming is to give other kids in my community and communities like mine, a life that can get them to where they want to be,” he said.

By Rachael Knowles