In the driver’s seat

Dr Maree Toombs is driving change
@ UQ Medicine.

Road truck

Looking at UQ Associate Dean of Indigenous Engagement for the Faculty of Medicine Dr Maree Toombs, you wouldn’t think she has a truck licence, but you’d be surprised!

“I’ve always loved big machinery. My father was a mechanic and diesel fitter, so when my students needed a bus driver, I put my hand up!” Dr Maree Toombs recalls.

“My goal now is to get a multi-combination licence and drive a road train from Darwin to Adelaide: that’s on my bucket list.”

Dr Toombs’s jovial spirit comes from a lifetime of unconditional love and belief in her abilities, especially from her mother.

“If I said ‘that girl’s really smart,’ my mum would say ‘you’re smarter; you can do anything you want’. She never put us down, and I didn’t realise what a gift that was until I was much older,” Dr Toombs says.

The mother-of-two, and grandmother-of-one, has dedicated her career to breaking the cycle for disadvantaged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Since 2012, Dr Toombs has led two National Health and Medical Research Council projects that focus on her passion for mental health and suicide prevention. One of the projects has been replicated in Canada, due to its overwhelming success. She is also working with a team of prominent researchers around the country to end bronchiectasis, a preventable respiratory illness prevalent in Aboriginal children.

Dr Toombs thinks she’s lucky to work in a field she is passionate about. When Emeritus Professor Peter Baker tapped her on the shoulder to represent the Faculty, she couldn’t believe it.

“I’ve been fortunate to have great supervisors and mentors in my life who’ve believed in me and shown me that the sky is the limit.”

But it hasn’t been a smooth ride to the top. Dr Toombs’s hippie family adventure travelling around the NSW Snowy Mountains in a bright orange Millard caravan was cut short when her mother’s severe mental illness forced them to set up permanent roots in Cootamundra in South Western NSW.

The town’s Cootamundra Girls Home, a domestic training facility for Aboriginal girls from the stolen generation, had closed 10 years before the Toombs family arrived. This left them to experience a lot of racism in a town that didn’t fully understand its role in the ongoing trauma left by the Home. In the 1970s and ’80s, many families didn’t feel safe identifying as Aboriginal, often posing as other nationalities to get by. The Toombs were just one of two families in Cootamundra at the time who identified as Aboriginal.

“My mum and brother have really dark skin, so they were targeted a lot more than me. But we managed to joke and have a laugh about it. If things got really bad, Mum would march up to the bully’s front door, and let’s just say ‘that would be the end of that!’” Dr Toombs exclaims.

Feeling like a bit of an outsider, Dr Toombs dropped out of high school before completing Year 12. She then started working in a number of low-paying jobs, and her future wasn’t looking good.

But, Dr Toombs’s grandmother and aunty, who both appreciated their own tertiary educations, had other plans for her. With the promise of scones with jam and cream, they invited Dr Toombs to their home to talk about a bridging program for Aboriginal people at the University of Southern Queensland.

“They pretty much dragged me to the course, but it was the best thing that could have happened to me,” Dr Toombs recounts.

Dr Toombs made the most of her second chance at education and successfully completed the bridging program. But others weren’t so lucky: out of 28 students in the program, only two finished.

“I certainly wasn’t the smartest person in the group, but I saw a lot of the other students drop out. I didn’t know why, and that really bothered me,” Dr Toombs says.

After working as a teacher for five years, Dr Toombs was asked to run the same university bridging program that she had graduated from. She was determined to improve Aboriginal student retention rates and was given the opportunity to enrol in a PhD to investigate the issues behind student dropouts.

“All of a sudden, I was in the hot seat and I needed to find the answers,” Dr Toombs recalls.

“In our culture, the village raises the child, so you go from having lots of aunties and uncles around you with lots of support, to
feeling lonely and isolated at school. It can be really hard for students.”

Under Dr Toombs’ leadership, the bridging program’s retention
rates jumped from 20 to 95 per cent. She became the first
Aboriginal woman to receive a PhD from the University of
Southern Queensland and was later named ‘Outstanding Alumnus of the Year’ for her contributions to Indigenous education.

Dr Toombs has been rolling up her sleeves ever since. In 2013, she and her mentor Professor Peter Baker commissioned a mobile clinic to provide primary health care and student placement opportunities to underserviced Aboriginal communities. Called the MOB Van; it was short for Mobile Outreach Boomerang because it always came back.

“I wasn’t put off when the local council told me there weren’t enough Aboriginal people in the area who needed our service. I just kept going.”

Within nine months, the MOB Van ended up providing health services to nearly 1000 Aboriginal people, and within 12 months, it was replaced by a State Government Aboriginal Medical Service. The MOB Van has since been repurposed into a hearing health clinic for schools.

“The community rallied behind the van idea because they didn’t like the conventional health care system,” Dr Toombs explains.

As a Eulalie and Kooma woman, an educator and a researcher, Dr Toombs brings a unique and critical perspective to UQ’s Faculty of Medicine. And, she likes to be in the driver’s seat to ensure that Aboriginal people receive the health care and support they want, rather than what others think they need.

“When I write a grant, I’m very much driven by what the community wants. I do research for the community, not to the community,” Dr Toombs says.

The MOB Van

The MOB Van

Maree Toombs cutting the ribbon for the new clinic in East Toowoomba, 2015.

Maree Toombs cutting the ribbon for the new clinic in East Toowoomba, 2015.

Learn more about Dr Maree Toomb’s research and initiatives.

Dr Maree Toombs

This story is featured in the Winter 2020 edition of UQmedicine Magazine. View the latest edition here. Or to listen, watch, or read more stories from UQ’s Faculty of Medicine, visit our blog, MayneStream.