16 Mar 2021
In this episode of Taking care, host Susan Biggar speaks with Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Adjunct Professor Brett Sutton, and Queensland’s Chief Health Officer, Dr Jeannette Young.
In this episode of Taking care host Susan Biggar speaks with Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Adjunct Professor Brett Sutton, and Queensland’s Chief Health Officer, Dr Jeannette Young.
The COVID -19 pandemic required both doctors to make daily decisions and provide advice to government which had far-reaching impacts on the community and thrust them into the glare of intensive and sustained media interest and public scrutiny. How did they as doctors - and people - cope with the year that they never expected?
Both led impressive careers before the pandemic and have years of experience in healthcare. This includes managing emergency departments, leading public health initiatives around the world, being on the front line of communicable disease work, and leading medical services for major hospitals.
In early January 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic emerging as a major health crisis, their roles and focus shifted. Within weeks they were fronting daily media briefings, with the need to be a consistent voice, and build trust with the public and the media to get life-changing messages and advice out to the community.
‘We didn’t have a rulebook – we truly didn’t.
‘Here in Queensland lots of people wanted to be out talking about what was happening. I just said you can’t, we need to get the message right,’ Dr Young said.
Professor Sutton said the decisions weighed heavily on him at the time, and they still do.
‘But I reminded myself my motivation was always with a single intent: to protect the health and wellbeing of Victorians.
‘There’s no path of no harm here. There are decisions to be made that will affect thousands upon thousands of people,’ Professor Sutton said.
Ethical decisions and the human impact of them, meant their messages were not always well received.
‘I did get some pretty nasty death threats, but the response from the Premier and the police who then protected me, indeed the response from 99.9 per cent of Queenslanders, was fantastic,’ Dr Jeannette Young.
As the decisions got harder, so too did the personal toll.
‘There was a grief with being with your family but not with your family, psychologically; putting my kids to bed, but my mind being elsewhere. I felt awful as a father. I felt I was with my children, but absent for weeks and weeks on end,’ Professor Brett Sutton said.
Having worked as the Chief Health Officer through the N1H1 pandemic, Dr Young instigated self-care as her first priority. Ensuring she had personal support resulted in her husband retiring early to stand by Dr Young during the challenging months ahead.
Professor Sutton credits his family, his meditation practice and professional support services with helping him cope with the pressure.
Despite the intensity and seriousness of their work, both could also see the lighter side of the unforeseen ‘celebrity factor’ that came with being in the unavoidable media spotlight.
‘I was at Bunnings a couple of months ago, and a guy said ‘you look a lot like that ...’ I nodded and said I am that guy, that annoying guy you see on tv every night,’ Professor Sutton said.
Registered health practitioners have led the remarkable public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia, and we commend them for this sustained public health response.
You can also listen to the full episode here and subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and by searching ‘Taking Care’ in your podcast player.
If you have found themes of this episode upsetting, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. DRS4DRS offer an independent, safe, supportive and confidential service for medical practitioners drs4drs.com.au.
A media pack including audio files and guest images is available on request. Please note: Professor Sutton and Dr Young will not be available for further comment.