Women in Medicine Series
Author: Kirsten Macdonald
There are times when you meet someone, and a certain uniqueness captures you, the backdrop fades in comparison and somehow they sit in your heart a bit longer than usual. You find yourself in the company of an impressive person of great heart and spirit. One of these unique creatures is Hannah Rose.
My first introduction to Hannah was in a cafe with what appeared to be an entourage of little children, nestled into her side looking at her with adoration. Her boho stylishness paired with an infectious grin exuded warmth and made me wonder, who is this person? What emerged then over coffee was a sharp wit and keen tongue-in -cheek- humour. When I found out afterward exactly what it was the humble Mother of 4 did for a living, to say I was both gobsmacked and inspired was an understatement.
So some 6 months later, when I was asked to write a series on inspiring women in medicine, I did not have to go far. Pink Sky readers I would like to introduce you to Dr. Hannah Rose. Hannah is a clinical haematologist at University Hospital Geelong and is at the forefront of cancer treatment. A passionate advocate for sourcing trials as well as being on the cutting edge of discovery and research, Dr. Rose travels the far reaches of the planet to find miracles and save lives in between mothering, friending, and senior lecturing at Deakin University.
The world of high-end medical science can be perceived as sterile and brimming with academics using words laced with tactical adjectives and non-personal interaction. Not so with this beautiful woman and professional, who takes this perception and disintegrates it with a firm heel and huge grin.
How did you know you wanted to be a doctor?
In Year 12, I wanted to be an airforce pilot! Realistically I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I had good marks, so it left me with a lot of options. I leaned towards medicine and didn’t actually get in the first round of selection leaving me really disappointed. It was when this disappointment hit me so massively I knew medicine was the “thing.”
1993 was my first year, and I never looked back. There was this realisation that the modality of Medicine was exactly where I wanted to be. The human body and the way in which it works and is put together fascinates me. For me it was this process of science and engineering, applying this knowledge to physiology and cell biology just really switched something on in my mind.
Someone like yourself must have had a mentor, a teacher. Who was yours?
The answer to that is my parents. I was very fortunate with them. My Mum had a love for art, literature, and poetry as well as an arts degree and then there was Dad – a native French speaker and also a mathematician, with a brilliant mathematical mind. I had the best of both arts/science minds to influence me. They didn’t push me but their example created a focus on academic excellence. My Mum had an excellent vocabulary and majored in Arabic. They were great role models and thinking-type people.
We didn’t have a television, so my siblings and I read a lot of books. I read my way through childhood with joy. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, so there were no big holidays or luxuries. For holidays we mainly went to Anglesea, which was great. I didn’t go on my first plane until University!
No television? Are you serious? Tell me about that!
Neighbours and Home and away- what was that about? To have an entire slab of major media influence be non-relevant in my formative years made for interesting conversations! It certainly didn’t hurt me, and I didn’t feel like I was lacking because of it in any way.
In saying that, let me tell you that University was a revelation! I didn’t know any music bands, didn’t really know much about modern music or media in general. What can I say? Hmmm, Uni was fun. Travel was really fun. (She says this with a cheeky grin)
Given you had so many choices in medicine, how did you choose haematology?
Haematology was the most interesting. I found blood cells and bone marrow fascinating. Haematology is always changing, and it is a very exciting time in the field. We are seeing an explosion of therapies that target cancer cells at a molecular level, which means the treatment is more specifically targeted to cancer cells, and being able to offer some of those treatments to patients is wonderful.
Why is this type of treatment so important?
Traditional chemotherapy and cancer treatment is a scattergun science, you treat the whole body hoping to poison some cancer cells, but unfortunately, it also kills off the good cells in the body which can cause awful side effects. The future of cancer therapy lies in a targeted approach , where we destroy only the cancer cells and not the normal cells in the body. You are just treating the cancer rather than poisoning the whole body. This is a total game changer. As a doctor, being able to say “I am going to give you a treatment that will target your cancer and you won’t have the usual side effects like hair loss or vomiting” is just fantastic.
Talk us through some of the process of your work
Much of the work I do involves experimental treatments and clinical trials for cancer patients. Patients need to qualify for a clinical trial based on their type of cancer and other factors. Real hope is emerging, with new agents discovered every year that are effective against cancer with less toxicity than traditional treatments. Cancer is the umbrella term given to a multitude of very different diseases. Cancer is caused by a mutation in the genes of a particular cell – if you can work out how the damaged genes trigger cancerous growth, you can develop techniques to protect cells from becoming cancerous or create new drugs to treat cancer. Science and technology are advancing rapidly in genome sequencing and mapping the mutations that cause cancer.
But it cannot happen quickly enough. In the meantime, people continue to develop cancers and get very sick which can have horrific consequences. I would like to see new drugs with proven benefit more readily available to my patients, although balancing the Health budget is not easy! University Hospital Geelong actually has a large and thriving cancer clinical trials department and I feel very privileged to be a part of that.
Has being a mother helped you in your profession?
Yes, I would say being a mother has helped me on many levels.
You have to be organized, and being organized helps you be more organized! (laughing) The old saying goes, if you want something done give it to a busy person, you do get a lot more done when you’re busy. Being a working mother makes me a busy person.
Being a mother helps you understand on a ground level what is really important in life and, the bond people have with family. This helps you to relate to patients. You become more aware of the role children have in your lives, and this can be transferred to patients who are parents.
Talk us through the challenges
My career has been challenging at various stages, but I had a lot of support from senior female and male staff. They saw the value of allowing me to work part-time. By doing this senior staff are saying “ I know that even though your hours are different, you are just as good investment regardless of motherhood. You are going to be worth hanging onto because you are good at what you do and we value you.”
It is really important for women to look after each other through the generations of medicine, and flexibility is so important. There has to be flexibility. I had babies in between specialty training and working. My first son was born in between my first general year in hospital! Working part-time for much of my training was not the done thing, in fact, it was quite unusual. Senior staff members allowed me to return part time; this was a fundamental part of my career. If I wasn’t able to do that, I might never have come back at all and wouldn’t be doing the work I do now.
What advice would you give working mothers starting out in medicine?
When you are at home, learn to switch off.
This is something I wasn’t very successful at early on. I was working late at night; I was frustrated, tired, unavailable to hang out with my husband. So it became apparent that I needed a bit of a wake-up call, and I made changes at work.
A lot of people work from home or bring work home, and I can see the convenience in this idea, this is what I did, to begin with, but the lines can get blurred. For example, you might be working on an important project or trying to study and a little person interrupts you, and you find yourself saying no a lot to this child, and these are not the type of no’s you want to say, yet this is also valuable work that you want to concentrate on. It is a lose-lose situation.
For me the solution ultimately was to NEVER work at home. I would go into my office and work for 6 hours on the weekend if I had to, but there was a very clear physical separation that needed to happen. I needed to be able to work efficiently and uninterrupted at work but also for my kids to know that when I am home, I am available for them. Work is for work, and if I am home, I am as present as I can be. Then both areas of my life get that dedication. You can get lost in trying to do everything. My husband said to me often “you can’t be all things to all people”! He is an anaesthetist, so we have two doctors in the house both trying to pursue specialty medical careers which makes organization, friendship and balance essential. If you are married, look after your marriage, and get help early on if you are struggling. Give your marriage as much effort and energy as you do your job, because marriage is an investment and everything follows on to home.
Often junior doctors watch and observe how you balance work life with a family. Don’t pretend it’s perfect or easy if it isn’t. If you don’t tell people the truth, they might not know how difficult it can be, even for women who seem to “have it all”. This is how women need to speak to each other. Be honest and say ‘This is how it is’, demystify the high achiever, nothing is ever perfect. By being open and honest, it alleviates the pressure working women feel that they have to be across everything all the time. We put so much pressure on ourselves because others at work seem to be coping or just don’t have the same challenges we do, but the more you talk the more you realise that most people have difficulties in some area of their life at any given time.
What else is important to you in your role, or that you value?
Spending the extra time with patients is something I value. The first appointment with a patient is imperative. Being able to empathize, or recognize what they may be experiencing and worrying about is a part of understanding and sharing the load. I always try and communicate that they have a partner in this journey now and this is the start of a long friendship; I will be the constant. You can see them relax. Saying it out loud helps everyone. Sometimes spending time talking about their mental health is important too. It is easy to just focus on the blood cells! Also, don’t forget the person who accompanies the patient to the appointment – this partner, friend or carer is often struggling too. Acknowledgment and understanding, feeling looked after and supported goes a long way in treating an illness, before any medication is given.
What would you like your daughter to know and other girls and young women?
You can do anything you want, do not be discouraged, don’t listen to anyone who tells says you can’t. Don’t be ashamed of your womanly qualities you have; they are a gift, your compassion, your intuition, your empathy is a gift. Your caring capacity is a gift.
Gravitate to the people that support you and are like minded in your career, you will find it will work better, and you will no doubt reward them in return with service and hours.
What is your one wish for your children growing up?
That they find a worthwhile occupation and learn to appreciate what they have and experience the beauty of the world before its too late.
Beautiful words of wisdom from a beautiful human!