At a dinner party one night, a conversation started about an awe-inspiring surgeon who saved the life of a woman at our table. This surgeon was astonishingly passionate, friendly and warm, who many years later still cared for those she saved. The moment the table was abuzz about her, I knew I had to interview her. When I found out she was at the Alfred Hospital, the connection grew strong, and we went on a hunt to capture a moment of this incredible woman’s life and ponder with her.
Assoc. Professor Sue Liew holds the position of Director of Orthopaedic Surgery but most of all she holds the smiles and hearts of many she has helped in the intensive and incredibly demanding role of surgical lead. Deemed as one of the most intensely stressful and time-consuming occupations in the world, with a focus on Spinal surgery, lower limb reconstructive and complex pelvic surgery- trauma based orthopedics is not for the faint of heart.
The day of the interview arrived, and as I walked into the ward, everything started to feel familiar. The smells, the shape of the benches, the direction of the lines on the walls. I sensed a disturbance in the force. I had walked smack bang into ward 3East- Ground Zero for me, two brain surgeries and a place I had spent more time than I cared too. It was a place of incredible people trying to save lives- a place I feel so much gratitude for and yet it is a place of intense sickness and tragedy. At times when I visit there, I feel like I can almost taste it in the air.
Heroes walk the corridors, gratitude floats along stronger than antiseptic but so does the tears of those who haven’t made it. Such is the place of spinal and brain injury trauma. I remember on one visit I asked my admissions doctor if she worked in neuro- she responded that she could not, it was too tragic and depressing even amongst the wins. I know right? Whoa.
As I seek out the location of Dr. Liew, the smells of the ward remind me of my sleepless nights and painful healing. The two people who died in my room. Right next to me. The man who was told he only had a few weeks to live and cried. He did not cry about his short life but for how on earth he would tell his children. The beautiful woman who reassured me that her condition was worse, and yet there she was still alive and fully healed. The nurse who visited me every night to talk to me about the wonder of Angels. The scent of hospital food trolleys sparks memories of vomiting uncontrollably and shaking from the drainage tubes that came from inside my brain. I want to walk backward quicker than a cat in a dog show. But then I remember that I am not here to have my skull cut open, I am not here to have a painful injection or procedure. I am re-defining my experience here in this place. I am here to step behind the curtain and spend time with one of the medi-heroes, the do-er of great things in a different capacity and I breathe out the jitters.
I put one foot in front of the other. I press the buzzer and a lady opens the door- with a huge smile and a curious look. Like she might not have been sure why I wanted to interview her. That’s a hero for you. They are often unaware of the awe that surrounds them. These ward wizards who have sleepless nights, rigorous hours, hectic meetings, helicopters landing by the moment with bodies broken from all over Oz waiting to be put back together again. The somehow, the paperwork, the board meetings, the director hearings, the research, professional development, the surgical meetings, the school drops offs, the family dinners, the family life- they don’t often have time to contemplate their wonder or bathe in the gratitude of those they have saved. There are so many ‘the-s’ but just not enough time. You get the picture right ponderers?
As I interviewed Sue Liew her eyes glitter with humor and interest. She is razor sharp and emits a grounded warmth. She is one of the first people I have interviewed that have enquired about me, and at times it felt like I was being interviewed- her interest in others and the non-self position was incredible.
There is a total lack of ego. Which without being unkind, I have to say is extremely unusual in a human with such a high position in medicine. So this is one chic I would love to share a beer or two.
K: So why did you become a surgeon?
SL: I like processes and systems – and was good at lots of different things, so I ticked off the things I didn’t like. I did engineering first, but once I got my hands in there, I couldn’t wait to become a surgeon, to fix things or be involved in active medicine. I loved surgery, it’s similar to engineering and reconstructing, you are rebuilding.
K: Thank goodness you found it. You have an impressive position and career, and this hospital takes in trauma nearly on the hour. It must be incredibly demanding and on-the-fly. It would be super demanding and disruptive to your personal life too no doubt.
SL: She smiles. (there are no words needed, we both get it).
K: You’re a woman in a very male-dominated industry. Have you ever encountered inequality directed at you? Did you have female mentors that paved the way for you?
SL: I have had all male mentors- I have been incredibly privileged and encouraged by male counterparts. I haven’t experienced gender inequality just encouragement- always. I know that might sound weird when you know, you hear about it happening so much in management positions- but I truly have had nothing but incredibly positive experiences. Does that sound strange?
K: I think that’s really refreshing, I like that answer.
K: Many people see surgeons and doctors as an elite kind of person of authority- often on a pedestal, and think money, prestige, etc. as well as heroic tendencies, but when I had to rely on this field to save my life I would often ponder about the surgeon. Like I have often thought that this person who operates had to spend years and years studying and researching, doing exams, doing assignments and thesis work, hours of interning, etc. to get to this point so they can save a life. A parent had to help pay a LOT of money to get this kid to a point where they are saving lives. What do you say to this?
SL: (Smiles- she thinks I am funny I can tell lol) Engineers, the finest minds now standing in an industry of prestige, once spent hours emptying ashtrays and pouring beers at the local. A medical degree does not support itself. Often they come from humble beginnings and well over a decade getting from a to b just to be able to work in this field.
K: So I take it you’ve had humble beginnings?
SL: Still do! (laughs) I came from very hardworking parents who valued education and opportunity. I worked my way through uni waitressing and was a barmaid in Werribee. There were times of confusion and lots of work. I was originally doing engineering at RMIT, then swapped over to Monash to do medicine. I hated it! Then I tapped into spinal trauma, and I secretly liked the challenge and became very focused- it’s like a vocation you know? It gets into your blood. I like to solve a puzzle and find a difficult diagnosis thrilling. But I didn’t always know I wanted to be this person, I just knew education was important. I think it’s important for people to know that you don’t always have the answers at the beginning! It can be a long road.
K: Does being a mother change you as a doctor?
SL: Well, my husband and I went on a holiday and came back and had a family. We had four kids between the age of 34 and 40. We called it the “fog” lol. Pregnancy does something that is for sure; it does something kind to you. Having children can give you perspective. I had a lot of support. My parents and my brother moved in with us into a bigger house, to help with the cooking and childcare. I breastfed all the kids for 6 months and had 12 weeks maternity leave. My husband was well established in his job too, so his position was able to support and was flexible. It helps.
K: What do you enjoy?
SL: Bikes, motorbikes.
K: Really!? That’s so cool. Is that the engineering mind coming in? For improvements and fixing things up?
SL: Yes! Reconstructive is like a series, an evolution of practices, forming a succession of surgeries and many hours re-building. Except you are working with people.
K: This has been the part I have heard so much about you, is your people skills! So often in a specialized area of medicine, people skills aren’t always the focus lol, would you agree?
SL: Well, the thing is, I am glad I guess that I get along with patients well. I see the mother, the brother, the sister and the child you know? (she shrugs humbly, but there is a strong connection here, you can see it in her eyes) But you know, so many of the country’s unique minds are incredibly focused on solving this one problem- or fixing this puzzle that is causing danger to a person’s life, they aren’t really thinking about how the conversation is going. They are thinking about the surgery or are compartmentalizing the systems and processes. You are sort of glad they have that kind of mind if that makes sense?
What about you? You seem to know a bit about this world? Do you have a medical background?
K- (laugh) no! But I have spent some time on this ward, and am happy to tell you I am glad I am here talking to you and NOT for the reasons I was here originally. (I then go on to tell her a smidge about my story on the ward- we know some people in common, and she extensively asks me about my life, we seem to spend a lot of time laughing and unpicking each other’s brain.) It turns out she is good mates with my surgeon number 2- who is a bit of a legend in these parts.
K: If you could have a chance meeting with your 25-year-old self what would you say?
SL: Oh boy. Really? Phew. Ok. I would say: do something you like, life has taught you that you end up wanting that anyway. If you do something you like- you will fall on the pathway easily and not so hard. You can go to bed knowing you are doing what is right for you. Find your own way.
K: Wow. That’s an entire story in one sentence!
SL: That’s not the half of it! (laughing).
K: Thank you so much for your time, this has been awesome!
SL: You and I should keep in touch, will you swing by and see me when you are here next?
The elusive far away creature ruling the intensive care trenches is this wickedly funny chic who likes motorbikes and was once a killer barmaid. I love it. She gets to save lives and be cool. Unfair right?