Q&A with Fiona Wood

We’ve asked Fiona to chat to us about her life and her work. Fiona at work

Q: You are so busy... what drives you?

A: I am never satisfied that ‘good enough’ is enough. Burns medicine is a highly complex field, and our knowledge and application is evolving all the time. There will always be scope to be better, and to learn more. We have made a difference through what we’ve been doing, but we still have a long way to go to truly achieve scarless healing. I think I might have been hard-wired to work – my parents were hard-working and they really instilled in our family the value of education and of being productive.

Q: Why did you get involved in the area of burns medicine?

A: Well, I knew quite early in my career that I was fascinated by research, that I wanted to do innovative things, and that I wanted to be a surgeon … all at the same time! When I started out it seemed that the people at the hospital at the time doing interest research were the plastic surgeons. They were looking at the anatomy of various areas of the body, such that you could understand the blood vessel going into a certain area of tissue, you could dissect and remove that and put it somewhere else by ‘re-plumbing’ it. I had a great interest in cleft palates originally, and still do, then developed a great curiosity about scarring.

Q: You’ve said that scarring is not just a physical issue. Why not?

A: When we deal with burn survivors, we have to look at the whole person. We have to work out how we can re-generate them on the inside, outside and in their heads. We talk a lot about improving the outcomes for burns patients, and these outcomes have to be whole-of-person or else it is a one-dimensional solution. The impact of a burn injury goes deeper than the mark it leaves on a person’s arm, or leg, or back or face. There is potential for ‘unseen’ physiological damage – for example, to the person’s organs, or muscles, which can affect mobility and cause other health issues. Then there is the emotional trauma and social health issues that need to be dealt with, and these can be highly challenging.

Q: You often make reference to a team approach. Why?

A: I could not have achieved anything without being surrounded by brilliant, caring and capable people. Every surgery takes a team, every rehabilitation process involves a team, and our research is a team effort. Everyone brings something different to the puzzle and together it makes a whole. We have Australian and international collaborations with research institutes and hospitals who share our vision, so that we can build global capacity. Of course, we can’t do any of this without the support of the community and our donors and partners – they are part of the team effort to make a difference.

Q: Why is education and first aid such a big part of the Foundation?

A: Obviously prevention is the best treatment of them all! So educating people – children as well as adults – about the impact of burn injuries and how to avoid them, is very important. Following that, first aid and the treatment that a person with burn injuries receives before they even get to the hospital, is paramount and has a big impact on the outcomes. The most effective salvage of all burn wounds is clear running water of 15 to 18 degrees for 20 minutes in the first hour after the incident. If the correct first aid is done, the results will be better for everyone.

Q: You have a husband and six children. How do you juggle it all?

A: Well, my children are older now – the youngest is 20 - so it is a lot easier than when they were all young! But my family has always been very supportive of my work and understands its value. It is about being organised, and making sure I have time for everything, including my own wellbeing and exercise. Having such a great team of professionals around me in every area of my work also makes life easier. I don’t really see it as a juggle – when you love doing something, you somehow just make it all work.

Q: What are you working on now and into the future?

A: How much space have we got?! One of the things that I am trying to dedicate more time to is looking at the brain’s response to trauma, as a way of getting information about different healing patterns. I want to contribute to the body of knowledge about how the brain changes and how the nervous system changes in response to a burn injury. I want to know ‘can I think myself whole? Can I use the nervous system to regenerate the skin to what it was before?’  And then of course, there are all the other research projects in which I am involved, and the surgery, and the patients …

Q: What do you want to be remembered for?

A: My role in my family first and foremost. I want people to realise that they can make a difference, that they can think differently and can question and innovate. That they don’t have to accept the status quo. That thinking outside the box is okay – in fact, more than okay. Because this is how we will make the advances that we need to make in order to progress as a society.

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