From history to healthcare for British-born medic
There was a time when Sarah-Jane Waller had her heart set on a career exploring the ancient civilisation of pharaonic Egypt.
Having just completed a degree in history and Egyptology in 2001, she left the UK as an adventure-hungry 22-year-old and headed for the land of the pyramids.
“I spent some time in Egypt and then had a couple of years travelling around the world,” says Sarah-Jane, now 41. “Then I ended up in Australia and fell in love with it instantly.”
Before long, she was hatching a plan to stay in her chosen home of Sydney.
When she looked at the list of in-demand occupations, “Egyptologist” was nowhere to be seen. But something else caught her eye.
“Nursing was up near the top of the list, and because I was working at a bar in Kings Cross at the time, I’d see a lot of nurses and doctors doing such critical and wonderful work with the population in that space,” she says.
“I thought, ‘Well, this could be something I could really sink my teeth into’, so I enrolled in a nursing degree and I’ve loved it ever since.”
After completing a Bachelor of Nursing at ACU in 2007, Sarah-Jane landed a role at St Vincent’s Hospital in Darlinghurst. She enjoyed the variety and flexibility of the work, and valued “the privilege of being able to help people when they’re at their most vulnerable”.
“I have always gone out of my way to help people when I can, and I think I underestimated how central this was to me as a person before I became a nurse,” she says.
“I consider myself lucky to have had many opportunities in my health career and have worked with some incredible people who have been generous enough to share their knowledge with me.”
In the operating room
Years as a theatre nurse have given Sarah-Jane Waller nerves of steel.
She was on duty at St Vincent’s in 2009 when a navy clearance diver was rushed to hospital after a bull shark tore off his arm and part of his leg.
“He’d come straight up to the operating theatre from ED with part of his wetsuit still on, and I still remember helping to remove the teeth from the back of his leg,” Sarah-Jane says.
“It’s one of those images that’s burnt into my brain … it just stays with you. As a nurse, you do see some confronting things.”
She agrees with the common sentiment that nurses are the unsung heroes of the medical world.
“Talking of incredible people – perioperative nurses, educators, porters and sterilising staff are certainly these,” she says.
“Everyone who watches TV has seen what a surgeon does, but you don’t see the role of all the people involved to make it happen.”
And there’s no such thing as a typical day.
“Every day is filled with different challenges depending on the needs of the patients and their operation. What is always there is teamwork, compassion and a great sense of humour.”
Sarah-Jane in action.
In 2014, Sarah-Jane took on a more strategic role in surgery and then outpatient services with the NSW Ministry of Health, a move that coincided with the release of the latest Harry Potter movie.
“I think I got excited about joining my own version of the ‘Ministry of Magic’,” she jokes.
She enrolled in a Master of Health Science at ACU, and has since served in a string of management roles for the NSW Agency of Clinical Innovation, in ophthalmology, anaesthesia and perioperative care and strategic planning.
“I won’t say I never looked back,” she admits. “I have struggled in the transition from seeing the impacts of my work on a daily level to working towards the bigger picture at a state level with a very diverse stakeholder group … but the wins are worth it.
“As a nurse you get instant gratification because you see the positive effects you’re having on people on a daily basis, but at a state-wide level, the work is more strategic, so you know the end result will help a lot more people, but it just takes a long time to get there.”
On the frontline
Sarah-Jane’s experience in both clinical care and public health management made her an ideal choice when state health authorities were putting together a team for the COVID-19 response headquarters in Sydney.
Her first role was in surgery liaison – a combination of stakeholder management and strategy. Then in July, following outbreaks in Victoria and NSW, she was chosen to lead the State Borders Team in the NSW State Health Emergency Operations Centre.
“On a personal front, it was overwhelming on that first day I arrived to the control room in March, and it has been an absolute privilege to work with such talented and committed people across health, the police, transport and other essential services in response to this pandemic,” she says.
“I have had to get comfortable with the unknown and working things out as I go. I think this is something generally as healthcare workers we do very well given the nature of the work, however the wide-ranging impacts of COVID-19 on all aspects of life and work have taken this to a new level.”
So does she ever wonder what her life would be like if she chose history over healthcare?
“I’m still very fond of history and I definitely think that studying it has helped me to be a better healthcare worker,” Sarah-Jane says. “And the Egyptology, well, that just makes me really good at pub quizzes.”
Keen to help others in frontline nursing or health administration? Explore the options.