Professor Fiona Wood: On Moving Past Greer, Leaving Dead Eggs, and Italian Mens’ Mouth Spray.
Words by Felice Tong
I met Professor Fiona Wood, illustrious co-inventor of spray-on skin graft, recipient of the Order of Australia, and – at least to this doey-eyed medical student – much-revered plastic surgeon demi-god. Somewhat ironically (because ‘plastics vs ortho’ is a long-standing beef), this was at the annual Australian Orthopaedic Association (AOA) conference, where she was the guest speaker at the Orthopaedic Womens Link (OWL) meeting. OWL is the women’s advocacy arm of the AOA, a fellowship and support network of female orthopaedic surgeons and trainees of all levels. This organization is necessary because of all medical and surgical specialties, women are least represented in orthopaedics, with fewer than 4% female consultants. However, the tide is slowly turning, with the AOA reporting around 10% female trainees nowadays.
The room was packed out with both men and women eager to hear Fiona’s story. An enigmatic and natural speaker, her Scottish brogue and down-to-earth manner ingratiated her to all immediately. We were not disappointed – her story truly is inspirational.
With the Sydney University Surgical Society running their annual Women In Surgery Workshop this month (which once again possibly ironically, I was missing for this talk) – and not the least because I was fan-girling pretty hard – I thought I’d write a thing about her talk.
These were my observations:
All great people achieve greatness in spite of resistance and obstruction from arseholes. Women just seem to get more resistance, and often for far fewer logical reasons.
When Prof Wood immigrated to Perth from Scotland in 1987, already part-way through her training for Plastic Surgery, she had a verbal job offer – which was immediately retracted when the bosses in charge realized that she was a mother with two infants. The phrase “there’s no way a mother of two can do the job we want” was uttered. She responded, “I think that’s bullshit. And the only way you’ll find out if I’m right is to give me the job”. They declined.
She who laughs last…
She took a year-long contract in a different surgical specialty in the same hospital instead. A year later she’d proved herself more than capable, and the Plastics department offered her the registrar job for real. She signed the contract. And then she told them she was pregnant with her third child.
Prof Wood was a training registrar when she first had the idea for using cultured cell sheets for patients with severe burns, and had happened to know of a patient who had failed all other measures, who she thought could benefit from this treatment. This patient was at a different hospital, under a surgeon that was not her boss. She made her case, convinced the boss, and got all the permissions. Which goes to show one thing: your level doesn’t matter. If you believe that you’re onto something, and that something can benefit people, follow it, fight for it, agitate for it. Badger the boss into hearing you out, write to others for help, talk to administrators, apply for a whopping great big grant.
On resilience, serendipity and lateral thinking:
Everything is useful, you just don’t know when. The idea of using cultured skin for burns occurred almost accidentally – she happened to be driving and listening to a radio broadcast about a scientist who had recently received a grant to bring a new cell culture technology back to Australia and had also heard of a patient suffering from burns on more than 70% of their body, who had failed multiple skin grafts and was circling the drain. Some would call it resourcefulness, others genius. She put two and two together, and just kept going. They had umpteen unsuccessful trials before they hit upon using a spray-on technique for the application of skin cells. And then they went through every mode and make of aerosol nozzle until they hit upon the winning combination of length, diameter and force – an Italian men’s mouth spray (that they subsequently bought in quantities that must’ve triggered suspicions of a mass outbreak of halitosis).
She wants people to say “Yes … and” more
Sometimes you have to strike while the iron’s hot and figure out the how later. Never not do something just because someone else says it’s impossible. If you’re given an opportunity to try something that you think is doable, say “Yes” … and then go figure out how and possibly who is going to help you deliver. The caveat, obviously, is that you must follow through and figure out the how, otherwise it’s just a barrel of lies. Getting funding/authority/permission is a daunting process, and often you have to back yourself that you’ll deliver.
On the 32-hour week and work-life balance
Fiona is all in favour of the 32-hour work week and capping our hours in order to try for some semblance of work-life balance. However she warns that this must be balanced by maximizing our productivity within those hours, that reducing hours should not lead to people saying “yes … and” less for fear of not getting things done.
Prof Wood, like many of the established female surgeons at OWL, often gets asked “but how did you do it all?” (often by hero-worshipping medical students and junior doctors) – to which they often don’t have an answer, because they have done it. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t spend half her speech wondering if the woman actually slept at all. To paraphrase Nike, the answer is: if you think you want to do it, just do it. If you’re passionate about chasing surgery, great, go nuts. If you fiercely want to have kids as well as cut, fantastic, do both. She is living testament that it’s possible and anyone telling you otherwise can get stuffed. But know what you’re signing on for – beyond merely expecting it to be hard, know that it’ll be brutally busy, and that that’s life. She described days that started at what must have been 4am at the lab doing cell research, then coming home to make the kids breakfast and get them to school, and only then heading off to begin her work day in theatres.
The flip side is to also know what kind of lifestyle you have in mind, and what you’re unwilling to compromise on. Prof Wood told me that one of her male registrars recently just dropped out of the plastics training program as he realized that his current priority was being a stay-at-home parent to his infants, over and above surgery. She thinks this is a really positive sign of the times.
Which brings me to … a career for people?
Prof Wood hates speaking about ‘women in surgery’. Not because it’s not worthy, and not because we’ve reached equality – at 4% representation and between 16-60% (!!) less income per year we’re nowhere near square. Without disrespect to Greer, Fiona says we should move further forward. She feels we should be re-framing the conversation around making medicine a career for people. This should not be misconstrued for a soft stance. She is pretty clear on not giving sexists a free pass. But her advice is to form a united front with the good eggs, and collectively give rotten ones no oxygen. She feels that the playing field is currently tight enough – should a united front be presented against people with poor attitudes, they will have to adapt their views or be left behind. “They will come to heel, or they will fall away.” Sounds like a battle-cry if I’ve ever heard one.
P.S. Three beers. It took this Cadbury three beers worth of Dutch courage.