Celebrating our women: Dr Sarah, Director of General Medicine

Today we hear from Dr Sarah McNab, a paediatrician, a parent and the first woman at The Royal Children’s Hospital to be named Director of General Medicine.

“On International Women’s Day we focus on gender, but we should recognise that lack of equality exists in so many domains: including race, religion, disability, sexuality. It is about acknowledging that diversity, in all facets, is a strength, not a weakness”.

Tell us about your RCH journey. When you joined, the roles you’ve held here.

I first started at RCH in 2003 as a junior resident, back in the old hospital.  I was very excited to be starting a paediatric career; I had known I wanted to be a paediatrician for a long time.  I completed my paeds training in the RCH / Monash program, before starting a PhD based at RCH.  I’ve been working as a consultant in General Medicine since 2010.  Since 2014, I’ve been the Clinical Lead of Short Stay and have recently been appointed as the Director of General Medicine.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

To me, International Women’s Day means striving towards a more inclusive world. On International Women’s Day we focus on gender, but we should recognise lack of equality exists in so many domains: including race, religion, disability, sexuality. It is about acknowledging that diversity, in all facets, is a strength, not a weakness.

On International Women’s Day, we should consider what we all can do – women and men – as individuals or in collaboration to make change.  It reminds us that we all need to use our voices to empower others.

Which women are you inspired by (past or present)?

I’m inspired by all the women who have paved the way, who allow us to keep tapping on (and sometimes smashing) the glass ceiling.

There’s a long list of women I admire, but some have stood out to me recently.  I saw Malala Yousafzai (the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize) speak recently, and was blown away by her intelligence and courage as she advocated for the right of all girls to receive an education (130 million girls internationally are denied the right to an education).  Her children’s book “The Magic Pencil” is a favourite of my three boys.

I admire Gillian Triggs, who stands up for what is right regardless of the political pressures and the cost to herself.

I admire Jacinda Ardern.  She is the epitome of combining a successful and unique career with motherhood, as well as publicly flipping the traditional gender roles in her family.  It is impossible not to look at her and think… “well… if she can do it…”

I’m inspired by my patients and their families… but that is not limited to women!

I’m inspired by my nieces.  They are all intelligent and kind young women with a fierce sense of social justice (well… the youngest is only one year old… but I’m sure she will, too!)  When I have (on occasion) had to have a difficult conversation about gender equity or sexism, I think of them.

And, of course, I’ve been inspired by my mum, who retired as a pharmacist last year.  She gave me the love and upbringing to allow me to take on the challenge of having both a successful career and family.  I couldn’t possibly pay her back, so I simply hope to pay it forward.

What is one of your greatest achievements?

Undoubtedly my family – we have three boys aged 8, 5, and 3.  They make my world sparkle.  We also have a daughter who died when she was one day old and we try to do our part to create a world that she could have happily grown up in.

Career-wise, I was particularly proud of the research that I did during my PhD.  I was completely naïve when I started my PhD (I’d never done any research before), but the study we performed ended up having an impact on the fluid given to hospitalised children around the world.

More recently, I was thrilled to be appointed as the first female Director of General Medicine.

And what are you hoping one of your next achievements will be?

Given I was only appointed as Director of General Medicine a few weeks ago… I’m going to take a breath!  After that, I’m really looking forward to delivering on my vision for the department, which aligns with RCH’s aim of delivering Great Care, Everywhere.

What are different ways you like to empower women in your everyday life?

I have always loved to mentor junior doctors. I hope that I empower them by being honest about my own journey – the good and the bad.  Too often senior doctors are put on pedestals, and no-one is really sure how they “do it all.”  I talk about the times that work and my patients have completely devastated me, the times I’ve wanted to quit, imposter syndrome, as well as the joy I get from work.  I talk about having children and a career – juggling, outsourcing (all the outsourcing), the many people I turn to for support.  I talk about getting things wrong.  And I also talk about the happiness and privilege that I feel to have these opportunities.

I also hope that I empower women by continuing to be authentic – for the most part, that means being kind and friendly and enthusiastic.  I hope I show people that these are not “soft” leadership traits.  You don’t need to stomp on people or change your personality to be respected.

If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would be?

I’d tell myself to enjoy the moment and not spend so much time wondering and worrying about what lies ahead.  I’d also tell myself to have courage to speak my mind without wondering whether people may think differently of me.

I’d also say to take opportunities, even if they were not part of the original life-plan.  All of the most memorable bits came from venturing off the well-beaten path.

What would you say to younger women (or those looking for a career change) aspiring to go in to medicine?

I love my career but it has been a long and difficult journey.  It is not a decision to take lightly, you need to love it enough to get through the tougher times.  That said, I think it’s a wonderful job, and a true privilege; ultimately, I’d say go for it!

What is your favourite RCH memory?

It has really been a fun and crazy journey.  Most of my favourite memories have involved patients, so I can’t really give details!

One I can share is a Christmas Day that I was working. My family surprised me by turning up on the ward.  We tracked down Santa (who was touring the hospital) before my family headed off to lunch.

I’ve also loved having the opportunity to send my children to the staff childcare / kindergarten.  It is incredibly convenient to be able to pop downstairs to breastfeed when you’re trying to juggle both work and family!  I’ve bonded with many other RCH mums in the feeding room!  I also have wonderful memories of joining my children on “excursions” from the hospital kinder to book launches with celebrities, bush kinder in Royal Park, and the micro lab where they grew bacteria from their hand prints on petri dishes (ewww).

How do you think medicine has changed/progressed over time and how would you like to see it change/progress in the future?

Obviously the clinical progress has been enormous so to briefly encapsulate all the changes – even since I became a doctor – would be impossible.  My grandpa, who died last year, had a partial paralysis for almost his entire life after contracting polio as a young child.  Polio has now been eliminated in Australia due to vaccinations.

I think our care has become more child-and-family-centred.  It was relatively recent history when parents weren’t allowed to stay with their children while they were in hospital.  Now the majority of our patients stay in single rooms and we actively encourage family involvement.

Thanks to the internet, I believe patients and their families have better access to information about their health.  This enables really robust conversations, and allows them to actively participate in their care.

I hope our future involves better health equity, particularly with our indigenous population and internationally.

I believe the future of health care is exciting! I’m particularly interested in the exponential increase in the genetic information that’s available now, and the progress that is being made in this field. I’m also excited about the increasing impact that technology will have.

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