Being a Catalyst for change

This Tuesday, I'm so excited that everyone will finally get to see Heartbeat: The Miracle Inside You on ABC Catalyst. The show, written and directed by documentary filmmaker Anna Broinowski, lets you follow me around the operating theatre, visiting patients and exploring some exciting new developments in the science of the heart. 

I spend a lot of time trying to get people excited about their hearts. Or more specifically, looking after their hearts. Many years ago, as a junior doctor, I got so drawn in by this magnificent organ that I committed my career to taking care of them. As a medical student, I was always going to be a surgeon, although at that time, I was going to be a plastic surgeon or an orthopaedic surgeon.

Women surgeons were uncommon when I was a fresh faced new doctor. And they still are. Women make up just under 10% of surgeons in Australia. While unconscious and systems biases still exist, I was lucky enough to be mentored by some incredible surgeons who were largely male and taught me to be a hard-working and highly skilled doctor. To me, it never crossed my mind that being female would hold me back. And with the support of my seniors and my own tenacity, it didn't. My gender is the least interesting part of who I am and what I do.

When I was given a rotation in cardiothoracic surgery, at Royal Perth Hospital, it was hard not to get sucked in to the beauty of everything that is held in by our rib cage. Our hearts and lungs are so incredibly clever, so strong and yet, I was beginning to understand how fragile they could be. I think one of the turning points came for me when I went to visit a lung transplant patient in ICU and I asked him how he felt. He looked at me and said "you have no idea how good is to be able to breathe." That right there, took my own breath away.

I never left heart surgery, and finished my specialist training to become a cardiothoracic surgeon after many years training, including getting extra training in transplant surgery and congenital & paediatric heart surgery. While staring at hearts is now very normal for me, I can honestly say that I never ceased to be amazed by what our hearts can do. 

Despite their brilliance, hearts get sick. Sometimes we're born with problems in our hearts. In fact, every day in Australia, eight babies are born with a heart problem. Sometimes, it happens out of the blue in fit and healthy men and women. Sometimes, our hearts pay the price for what we do to them, like smoking or inactivity. And that's where we come in. A huge team of doctors, nurses and allied health professionals that I am lucky enough to call my colleagues are ready to help however we can.

Heart surgery and medicine in general is truly excellent. We are always pushing though to work out ways to tackle diseases of the heart in ways that are better, safer and more effective for patients. In an ideal world however, we'd get in long before you needed to be on an operating table. 

It's my hope that we can all get better at taking care of our hearts. Whether it be breaking the code for the genes that cause heart disease in children, or developing even better mechanical hearts, I am so excited at where the future of our hearts is taking us. As part of Catalyst, I was lucky enough to meet some amazing scientists who are doing just that. From Prof Sally Dunwoodie and Prof Robert Graham at the Victor Chang Institute to Professor Stuart Grieve at University of Sydney, these tireless researchers are helping make a future for our hearts brighter than ever before. 

As I said, I don't usually get to meet this wonderful minds. While I call them colleagues, they're the ones doing the hard yards behind the scene, sometimes over many many years to get a breakthrough that will help hearts everywhere. At the end of that process, I get to be the lucky doctor who uses their hard work, sometimes to save a life. 

All in all, it's inspirational. And that's what I hope you all see from Catalyst this week. But rather than just be in awe of the clever scientists, the brave patients or our wonderful heart team, think about how wonderful you are. Because on the inside, you have this incredibly beautiful pump that starts beating before you're born and never stops until the day you die. It's such an amazing thing that we all have and I hope that this inspires many more of us to look after it in the way it deserves.

  Just a small part of our heart surgery team you can see this week on Catalyst. Picture: ABC

Just a small part of our heart surgery team you can see this week on Catalyst. Picture: ABC