Refugee Week: Bendigo alumna Gai Porh is one of two Karen pharmacists in Australia

Here’s a unique statistic; the 2016 census found the Karen language to be the second most commonly spoken in Bendigo.

The first seven Karen refugees settled in Bendigo in 2007, and now it’s estimated 2,500 Karen people call the city home. 

La Trobe alumna Gai Porh was one of the early arrivals, migrating from a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border to Bendigo in 2008. Here she completed secondary college, then studied Pharmacy at La Trobe, graduating in 2019.

GP, as she’s known to her colleagues and friends, is now a pharmacist at Bendigo Health, where her fluency in Karen and English is a precious skill.

GP’s role is to ensure patients are taking the correct medications at the correct doses on admission and discharge from the hospital. And if one of those patients happens to be a Karen person, she’s right there beside them.

“I can explain the medication to them in their language so they’re more likely to understand,” she says.

“Because they’re Karen, even when they don’t understand English, they will just say ‘yes’ to everything. It’s especially important for the older people.

“When they are admitted to the hospital, they are acutely unwell, hence many new medications may be initiated. Being able to explain the medications means I’m confident that they will understand about the medications and how to take them correctly.”

GP says without this assistance, it’s not uncommon for Karen people to misinterpret dosages, and take medication once a week instead of daily, for example. The outcome being a return visit to the hospital as symptoms are still present.

“It’s really important, especially with something like antibiotics, which are going to save a life at the end of the day by preventing infection. So, in that sense, it’s lifesaving,” she says of her role in Bendigo. But GP’s care also goes beyond the practical.

As a well-known person within the Karen community, she is a welcome sight at the hospital for many reasons.

“Working in the hospital, and being able to say hi to them when they are acutely unwell, puts them at ease and makes them less uncomfortable,” GP says.

“This is because when they cannot speak English, when they don’t have anyone around who can speak their language, and they’re not getting to eat their usual meals of rice, it makes them uncomfortable and they just want to go home. On the ward, when they see me, they do feel very happy.”

A Bendigo education delivers

GP says, growing up in Bendigo, she always aspired to study at the local campus of La Trobe.

“There are many reasons why,” she says. “I feel like Bendigo is my home so obviously I wanted to stay here. And because of the costs involved. Coming from a refugee background, my mum didn’t work, so couldn’t support me fully. It was great to stay here to study, live at home and at the same time still be able to help my community.”

GP’s interest in healthcare has led her to become one of just two Karen pharmacists in Australia.

“Within Karen people there are a lot of nurses, but not many pharmacists. Now, there is one in Victoria, which is me, and another in Sydney. Pharmacy is a good field to work in, I really enjoy it. Of course I do. I love it.”

GP’s experience at La Trobe also paved the way for other Karen refugees to undertake a degree. Last year her brother graduated from the Bendigo Campus with an Engineering degree and is now working in Melbourne. And currently, she has a cousin studying Nursing.

“I’m very proud of her and happy she is pursuing her dreams,” GP says. “The opportunity is there for us and if we were still living in a refugee camp, we wouldn’t have that.”

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