Faced with insurmountable odds and circumstances beyond our control, we turn to the brightest minds and most innovative thinkers to find a solution. Through sheer resilience and grim determination, their ability to grit their teeth and conquer challenges head on come to define history and craft a lasting legacy of innovation, creativity and strong leadership.
Transcending the medical profession by exceeding expectations at every turn, Professor Fiona Wood encapsulates this concept on a daily basis having built a career on routinely defying societal expectations and navigating obstacles placed in her path. She shared her story when speaking at an AIM WA Inspirational Leader Series event in November last year.
Having completed her internship and residency at several hospitals in London prior to emigrating to Australia in 1987, Prof Wood has been a part of the medical sphere for decades, achieving national and international recognition for her extensive portfolio of work in the field of burns treatment.
Working since the early 90s at both Royal Perth and Princess Margaret hospitals led her to develop a spray-on solution of skin cells in 1995, revolutionising the industry by reducing permanent scarring on burns victims. In the immediate aftermath of the Bali bombings, 28 victims were initially flown to Perth where they received specialist treatment from Prof Wood.
Her fascination for discovering the ‘why’ in situations and an eagerness to dive further into the potential that comes with acquiring knowledge actually began from a young age.
“Around age 13 I was obsessed with education,” Prof Wood said.
“Education will give you the choice in life to get up in the morning and enjoy what you do. That was the mantra that I was bought up with, that your education is your key to the future.
“If you don’t enjoy what you do then it’s an opportunity to use your intellect, your training, your education and change that lens of your life. That’s what I saw and witnessed when I was growing up as my mum and dad were obsessed with education.
"My eldest brother passed away at 33 with very challenging asthma. Even after leaving school at 15, he went on to become a criminal defence lawyer with a Cambridge law degree because when you get knocked down, you get back up again.
Proceeding to then work and study at Saint Thomas’ Hospital Medical School, Prof Wood encountered people who were adamant that, as one of only 12 females in her year, she should ‘know her place’, and her place was not as a surgeon.
“I had to deal with the hurdles that were presented to me and were in front of me. I had to work out how to get over them, around them or knock them over,” Prof Wood said.
“I learnt one of the most valuable lessons in life – negative energy, criticism without engagement in problem solving, is just simply a black hole. To engage in aggressive argument, fighting, counter debate with somebody whose mindset is so closed is an abject waste of time.
“Criticism is not a problem per say, it's healthy; but saying 'you can’t do that because you’re a woman, you’re black or because of your religion is wrong', there’s no point in engaging in that, just walk on by because it’s not even worth your breath.”
Labelling herself as ‘aggressively competitive but not intrinsically aggressive’, Prof Wood highlighted the one thing that gave her the choice to continue on her journey despite the prejudice.
“It was clearly research. It was engaging in people who were at that edge, who wanted to do better, who were interested in driving the body of knowledge forward; that was where I found my niche.”
Prof Wood said her experiences as a medical student heightened a fascination for research, learning and their endless possibilities.
“I saw them take the muscle from the back and put it around the leg, so that we could salvage a young man's leg after a motorcycle accident; it was very commonly amputated prior,” she said.
“All this technology was bought into a room to change the person’s life. When I started thinking how I could be part of this journey, it was with people who were resilient enough in that environment.”
Sharing the story of the first patient in Western Australia to encounter cultured skin in 1990 at the intensive care unit of Royal Perth Hospital, Prof Wood was a young registrar and had been tracking technology that grew skin. Not only did she manage to commandeer the operating room and bone marrow laboratories so her team could use a certain environment to undertake the operation, she convinced them to also grow skin for the patient.
“The patient had a major burn, with multiple infections and was slipping through our fingers like sand,” Prof Wood said.
“We achieved the operation and she was out of intensive care, off the ventilators on the burns unit ward. On the Wednesday afternoon she had a cardiac arrest and we couldn’t resuscitate her.
“We only stop if everybody at the bedside believes we can’t go any further. If somebody has a shadow of doubt that there is life there, we continue. I was the last one to stand up.”
Where some medical professionals are bestowed the option of feeling self-indulgent or depleted following a loss like this, Prof Wood was quite the opposite.
“I have never thought of it as a failure and realised the only way I could honour this life is by changing the lives of others and I could do that by learning, learning, learning,” Prof Wood said.
“We could honour this death by understanding our responsibility to learn and to influence going forward.”
A Professor in the School of Surgery at The University of Western Australia and a cofounder of the Fiona Wood Foundation, Prof Wood was a recipient of the Australian of the Year award in 2005 and the WA Citizen of the Year award in the same year and in 2003.
When performing a surgery or administering treatment, Prof Wood said the wealth of responsibility to a patient went beyond them simply signing a piece of paper.
“They trust you on a level that I don’t believe we see in any other field. That team is responsible for keeping you well, because you are putting your life in their hands,” she said.
“Solving a problem that is in front of you is what I do on a daily basis – people who’s lives have changed in an instant, that’s when we bring all our knowledge and experience we can to the table to work out how we can influence this trajectory of life right here, right now.”
“To do so takes a lot of energy and engagement by working out how we can do better. Finding people who engage with you, don’t necessarily think the same, but are interested in the same problem, and in working out the problem, rather than spending time on all this collateral damage is key.”
Continuing to research and teach at Royal Perth Hospital, Princess Margaret Hospital and The University of Western Australia, Prof Wood encourages those around her to unleash their potential throughout all spheres of life.
“I have a fundamental belief in the unique gifts that people bring. I think everybody is special; everybody has a gift to give. Have we given ourselves and each other an opportunity, a framework, where we can be the best we can be?” she said.
“You can make the choice to see challenges as a learning opportunity, or you can sit down and let life wash over you.
“There’s no point getting up in the morning to be average; be the best you can and tomorrow, be better.”