DR SARAH O’Reilly-Harbidge admits her days are “crazy” – but worth it.
She is a mother, a partner, a power-lifter, a student and an orthopaedic surgeon working within one of the busiest trauma centres in the country.
It is not easy. But she loves it.
“I wouldn’t want to do anything else, but that’s me,” Dr O’Reilly-Harbidge, 33, said.
If her young son sleeps through the night, her day typically begins at 5am, although occasionally, it is 3am. If it is a “training day”, she heads to the gym for a weights session at 5.30am before ward rounds at John Hunter Hospital at 7am. She hits the operating theatre at 8am.
“I’ll operate until about 6 or 7 in the evening, get home and put my bub to bed, and then study,” she said.
“If I’m on call, then it may be midnight when I get home.”
Caffeine, and determination, helped.
It was an “all-in” lifestyle. Not for everyone, and not without its sacrifices. But it was important work. Satisfying, and rewarding, work.
As a young woman cutting a path in the intense and male-dominated orthopaedics field, Dr O’Reilly-Harbidge is considered a “rare breed”.
“A lot of it is historical,” she said. “There was a real need for you to be very physically capable when we didn’t have power tools we do now. And it is a very vocational lifestyle.
“It probably demands the best part of your 20s and 30s for your training, and the work hours … a 50-hour week is a good week, a bad week is 80-to-100 hours in the hospital. So it is not very family-friendly when you are making those decisions.
“A lot of people, both males and females, probably don’t choose it for that reason.
“It ends up being a bit self-selecting from that perspective.”
Orthopaedics is a competitive field, and those working towards a career in it tended to go above and beyond the usual work and study hours to get an edge, a foot in the door.
“There is a lot of junior doctors coming out these days, and it is a very competitive specialty. You’ve just got to get in there, and put the hours in, and do the study, do the research,” she said.
“It is intense. In orthopaedics, you have to have to be a physician, and a surgeon, and a little bit of an engineer.
“It just made sense to me.”
Orthopaedics is a medical specialty focused on the injuries and diseases of the body’s musculoskeletal system – bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, and muscles.
Dr O’Reilly-Harbidge liked the diversity it offered.
On any given day she could be working with a pregnant woman who was having trouble with the stability of her pelvis, or whose baby had a condition which meant they would be born missing digits or limbs.
Other times, she could be looking after a teenager who had come off a motorbike, or patients who were more than 100 years old who had fallen and suffered fractures.
Dr O’Reilly-Harbidge has become an accidental role model for female medical students and junior doctors considering becoming a surgeon.
“People tend to move towards areas where they see role models in, and because we, historically, didn’t have a lot of women – it has held out as a very male-dominated specialty,” she said. “There has been a big, positive push towards the visibility of female surgeons within the medical profession, which is great, but I also think that I have had so many amazing – both male and female – role models, that there are probably much better people to look up to than me. I still feel very junior. But it is nice hearing that people think it is more attainable because they have seen me do it.
“I think the last female to have a child in the training program in Newcastle was Dr Lynette Reece, which was about 25 years ago.
“There has been a few people who have said they weren’t considering surgery until they realised that you can actually do both, and that is nice to hear. Because I don’t think it’s an all-or-nothing decision.
“I really wanted to do this, and I certainly wanted to do surgery a long time before I was considering having a family. Then I decided I’d like to have a family, and the two aren’t mutually exclusive. You can have both.
“You just have to work out ways around it.
“We have an amazing friend who helps us out.
“Other than that we have no family in town. It is very, very busy, because my partner – Ben – has just opened a new barber shop on Hunter Street as well. We use daycare, and we juggle, but we have made it work.”
Dr O’Reilly-Harbidge moved from Brisbane to study medicine at the University of Newcastle when she was 17 years old.
By the time she has completed her final exams in 2019, she will have spent 17 years – half her life – in medical and surgical training.
“After the exams, I will be doing further surgical training in my sub-speciality areas, and I am looking at enrolling in either a masters or a PhD,” she said. “I am a sucker for punishment.”
She said she was the first medical student to do trauma as an elective at John Hunter Hospital.
“They didn’t have it as part of the medical degree at that stage,” she said.
“I created a term to spend some time with the trauma team here, which has pretty much led me to ending up in the specialty. It is now part of the medical degree at the university.
“I was probably the fifth female through the training scheme over the years – the first was Dr Reece, who works in Maitland now.
“There has only been a handful of us through the training program here.
“We are still a rare breed.”
Dr O’Reilly-Harbidge’s passion for orthopaedics grew after her father sustained a “nasty” complex ankle injury in a rock climbing accident.
“Everyone said my interest in orthopaedics was a ‘phase’. That I would come to a point where I’d realise it wasn’t for me, that it was not something women do. That everyone thinks orthopaedics is really sexy, but it is really hard.
“I was told by people within my medical school that I would never end up being an orthopod. But yet, here I am.”
It felt good.
“It is not even about proving them wrong – it is about saying, ‘This is what I wanted to do and I just don’t understand why you said it wasn’t possible’. Because it clearly is,” she said.
“It is what I wanted to do enough to put my head down and do what I needed to do. All the surgeons I work with – and it was, up until recently, a completely male department – have been incredibly supportive, and there has never been an issue about the fact that I am female.
“It is an amazing career, and the deeper into it I get, the more I enjoy it. And I’m looking forward to the next step of getting through my fellowship exams and getting to travel and study more and then, maybe, set up a practice. Each layer is deeper and harder, but more rewarding.
“Every time you do something there is that next level you can go to. You can always be better, you can always work harder, you can always learn that little bit more to make yourself a better surgeon to do better by your patients.”
Staying fit made her job easier, she said.
Dr O’Reilly-Harbidge had dabbled in competitive power-lifting – although more recently it had taken a side step while she worked full time, studied full time, and reared and wrangled her one-year-old boy.
“I am still recovering from having a baby and trying to study, but I do enjoy going to the gym as my outlet for stress and for staying sane and normal among all the chaos of work and study,” she said. “There is definitely still a physical component to the job, but it’s achievable.
“We’re seeing a lot more diverse group of surgeons coming through now – it’s not the stereotype six foot tall ex-rugby forward anymore – although they still exist.
“There is a changing face of who we are as surgeons, and the fact we are less the stereotype of wealthy, older white males – which, don’t get me wrong – I still accept the fact there is a lot of privilege in the background for most of us. But we are still getting out there and doing normal things. We are doing all the day-to-day normal stuff. I think we are becoming more reflective of the community we serve. We are not removed and aloof and kept away from it.”
She said everyone, particularly in the medical field, made sacrifices to do their job, to help others.
“You have to keep operating to the point where it is the absolute best outcome you can produce for the patient, and that means you often sideline things in your own life to be able to do that,” she said. “You definitely miss out on a lot of things, and you definitely reply ‘no’ to a lot of invitations, but what you are doing is really worthwhile.”