Former Australian of the Year and a Member of the Order of Australia, Professor Fiona Wood has had a long and remarkable career as a worldrenowned burns specialist whose primary goal is to provide management and care for burns victims and to deliver scarless healing.
She was thrust into the spotlight after the horrific 2002 Bali bombings, and worked tirelessly with her team to save the survivors. With multiple roles and responsibilities, both professionally and personally, she talks candidly about her life’s passions and how she stays on top of her game. For Professor Wood, regular exercise and leading a healthy lifestyle is paramount to managing her relentless schedule between hospitals, the foundation, the university and travel overseas where she continues to deliver her message about her research in burns care.
Director of the Burns Service of WA, Fiona Stanley Hospital and Princess Margaret Hospital Consultant Plastic Surgeon, Fiona Stanley Hospital and Princess Margaret Hospital Co-founder and Director of the Fiona Wood Foundation (formerly The McComb Foundation) Winthrop Professor, School of Surgery, University of Western Australia
Q when does a typical day start and end for you?
I always kind of smile at that one because one of the very fortunate things for me is that I live in a space where there is no real “typical” day. I usually start at 5 o’clock …answering emails, getting myself organised and by 6, I’ll be exercising. Then it depends if I’m on clinical, I’ll be at the hospital early, or if I’m on research roster or meetings I’ll move between the hospitals or various meeting places, whether it’s the university or city, and then its operating, outpatients, more meetings around health at the Burns Service, or meetings around health generally. I’m on various committees, so more meetings around different research groups. It’s quite varied each day and into the early evening.
Q You have an extremely busy life as a successful medical professional, mum to six children, researcher and more. what strategies do you use to organise your time?
I guess I’ve been very much a planner all my life… very keen at looking at what I’ve had to achieve and working out how best to dovetail it in when you see an opportunity of time opening, having things you can move and being flexible. Its planning but with inbuilt flexibility and not being rigid in your planning, and prioritising.
For me, the kids were a priority, so working with my husband making sure that they had their needs met and they were at the right place at the right time. To do this we would alternate and on the days I would work early, he would take the kids to school. When I would finish early, he would work late. That sort of juggling. I feel like it’s not so much a balance. It’s more like Chinese plate juggling!
Q if you had to take a step back and slow down, what would you do?
I would still exercise. There is no substitute for your personal fitness. Having the capacity to exercise brings you to the table with a higher level of capability. If you’re fit, you can deliver at a higher level of efficiency – you’re fit inside and out. If I were to step back and slow down, I would definitely cycle more.
Q How often would you give yourself a bit of ‘me” time? what do you do for relaxation?
Definitely my exercise in the morning. I also love the beach. I was in there this morning in the big waves. Walking on the beach and then I throw myself in the water. I love the waves. I’m not really a swimmer but I just like being knocked around by the waves - for a bit of a play. I mean, how often do we play? We have fun in the waves and just mess about. Even after a cycle, I’ll try
and head down to the water, even in winter.
Q How often would you make time for regular physical activity in your busy working week?
Other than cycling, walking and throwing myself into the waves, I do a fitness class each week on the beach, and even when I’m away and travelling, my trainer gives me videos to do - little exercise sets. It takes me about half an hour and even if I’m in a hotel room, I find it a lot better to follow the videos because I’m not really one for the hotel gyms. So I’ll use weights and bands, but when I’m in my hotel room, I’ll use my body weight for resistance training. Which is great because it’s always been a problem for me not being able to exercise while travelling. Now, I can!
Q How do you keep your brain healthy and happy?
Well, I think there is probably a hole in my brain when it comes to learning a language, and I’m not that great with crosswords, Sudoku and the like, but I do like reading a lot. I read fiction but I also read a lot around related material trying to understand the advancing technologies that are out there and how they can impact on what we do in our burns care. So, I guess my brain activity is really ‘horizon scanning’ and looking at what is happening elsewhere and thinking “Well, how can that really help us? Or what about that genetic analysis? Or how people might be treating something over there, and actually that might be really interesting because that infection might teach us something about our patients here.” I always read every night, I’m an avid reader especially just before I sleep.
Q What about your diet? Anything specific that you eat, or do you follow a particular diet trend?
I always feel that I eat too much and I love food but I have to watch that I don’t eat too much. I’m not following any particular diet but eating sensibly makes a big difference. You have to maintain your energy. I have lots of athletes in my house so we have to eat healthy. Just good healthy food, so if I buy ice cream too often, they get cranky at me. I love chocolate but we have to keep that for weekends.
Q one of your greatest achievements has been your work with ‘spray on skin’ with marie stoner, which gave you critical acclaim. Put simply, how does it work?
Well, we replace our skin surface continually. Every six to eight weeks the cycle is going through. The engine room in the skin is between the two main layers. It’s really taking an enzyme and splitting the skin like a bread and butter sandwich, and the engine room is the butter and that is what I’m looking for, so I put the skin
an enzyme and the two main layers split apart and so that has left me with the ‘butter’ surface exposed, if you like. We scrape that off and that is the engine room. They’re the cells that replenish the surface of the skin. So we harvest them by scraping off the butter (of the bread and butter sandwich) and we spray it back on. It takes twenty minutes to harvest the skin so it is a pretty quick process, where we use a kit. The aim is to speed up the time to heal and so by doing that, you reduce the scarring.
Q what is the aim of the fiona wood foundation? How important is fundraising for this cause?
Fundraising is all about keeping our research going and giving us the freedom and opportunity to facilitate exploring questions and exploring how we can understand the differences in different groups. By understanding the difference in certain burns, then we can understand the mechanism behind that in the cells. By understanding that, we can then try and change the care. It’s all about improvement of care by research. If we raise more money, we do more. If we raise less, we do less. We wouldn’t have been able to do anything anywhere near what we have done without the community support. What we have been able to achieve has been facilitated by our community supporting the foundation.
Q what are the majority of burns you see as a result of? and why?
In the kid’s hospitals, the majority of cases are scalds. In the adult hospitals, it’s flame burns. Really, that’s pretty standard for a developed population. The vast majority of our burns are not major and that is predominantly because of prevention, occupational health and safety strategies have been very effective in our environment. Things like safety around nightwear in children means we don’t see those types of burns where kids get flame burns from their night clothes. The way kettles are designed now, we see less kettle scalds. Our homes and our workplaces are designed much better. We saw, certainly by the early 90s, a big fall away from the incidence of the very nasty major burns. Most of our burns are less than 20% body surface area, but having said that, that is a pretty major burn for someone.
But when someone does have a major burn we are obviously focussed on treating them in a way to always strive to give them the best possible outcome to what they were before.
Q what made you passionate about burns injuries?
I saw a child so badly scarred from a very trivial injury in 1985 and I couldn’t believe that that was as good as we could get. So that’s when I started and I was determined to make that better. There’s so much new at the moment. Understanding that a burn injury influences the rest of your life, we want to know why and I particularly want to know how we can use the brain, and the impact on the nervous system, because it is so painful, and the skin is a nervous receptor. It’s our interface with the world, and so, if you damage the skin, its painful, the nerves change, your brain changes, and we want to use that information to drive a better repair, to drive that person’s healing. So I think it’s really exciting to understand the neurological impact of burn injury.
Q what are the proudest moments for you personally and professionally?
I’ve had some great moments personally. I feel very fortunate to be the mum of six amazing kids. They’ve certainly made me proud on multiple occasions. Professionally, there are two levels; being Australian of the Year was beyond anything I could have ever imagined. But then, some days, you see someone who has climbed their own personal Everest of healing, and they walk out of here (the clinic), and you think, wow! That’s something special.
Q what advice would you give busy australians like yourself who are juggling multiple tasks and trying to find a balance between home, career and health?
Enjoy it... Enjoy it….! I’ve got this far in my life and I still haven’t figured out the ‘yes’ gene because I keep using it all the time. I keep saying, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” and I’m a yes person and I know that. Then I work out how to make things happen. So, I’m an optimist, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to bring to the table a joy of life. I enjoy it and I know that people around me, when they are enjoying what they are doing, are better at it and it’s exciting. They give more and the whole thing builds, so positive energy is something that I really thrive on and I really connect with others and that gets you through the bad days. It’s not always sunshine and roses so I think the best thing is to find something that you always enjoy. Time is so precious and you can’t waste it.
So my advice is to make sure you enjoy it. If you’re not enjoying it, and it becomes a chore that’s when it’s time to stand back and ask “What are my life choices?” All we have is our time. You want to make sure you spend it wisely, and enjoy it on a fulfilment level and you know you’re contributing. Get positive energy from lots of different spaces. Management of stress is associated with resilience, which is intrinsic in part, but it is a learned behaviour. Things aren’t always going to go right or the same way you expect but if you enjoy something and you put your life energy into it, when you get to a hurdle, you will have the resilience to overcome that hurdle instead of walking away – because it means enough.
PROFESSOR FIONA WOOD
to donate to the Fiona Wood Foundation, go to www.fionawoodfoundation.com for more information