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Over the past 10 years, Dr. Fiona Wood has become a prominent and respected figure, not only within Australian medical circles but in the public eye at large. You could be forgiven for taking all day to reel off her remarkable list of awards, accolades, and, perhaps most noteworthy, her groundbreaking achievements in the care and treatment of burns patients. Wood has been the recipient of the 2003 Australian Medical Association "Contribution to Medicine" Award, an Order of Australia Medal, was named West Australian of the Year for 2004, nominated as a National Living Treasure, won the Australian Citizen of the Year in 2004, and with colleague Marie Stoner she won the 2005 Clunies Ross Award for their contributions to Medical Science in Australia, before winning her second consecutive West Australian of the Year in 2005. To cap it all off, Wood was then given the grand honor of being named Australian of the Year in 2005.
Interested in plastic surgery as a young medical student in the United Kingdom, Wood muses she was a research "dogsbody" for a lot of plastic experts where she was introduced to the field at an early stage. She was exposed to plastic surgeons, general surgeons, and pediatric surgeons for children early on, and points out that the United Kingdom was, and is, a major hub for research in plastic surgery. From there, she sought a job at the very prestigious East Grinstead Burns Unit of Queen Victoria Hospital in 1985, which she notes "had its heyday in the era of Sir Archibald McIndoe." Wood says she was at this stage "hooked" on plastic surgery and has maintained this passion ever since, noting much of interest is due to the potential for future developments in the field and stating that when it comes to burns research, "we have a long way to go."
When Fiona Wood arrived in Australia in the mid '80s, she initially found there were essentially strong cultural similarities with the United Kingdom, albeit occasional misinterpretations due to the "colloquial nuances of the language." However, she reminisces that it was hard to believe she was working in a public hospital, given the environment within such facilities in Australia had a far more "affluent" feel to them than their counterparts in the United Kingdom.
Although she has practiced for years within Australia since then, there is no doubt that Wood is best known in the nation for her heroic work in the aftermath of the Bali bombings in October of 2002, catapulting her into the nation's spotlight. She led a team at Royal Perth Hospital treating 28 of the victims of the terror attack, who were flown to Perth, suffering from varying levels of burns and serious infections. Even though this was an unbelievably tragic event, Wood asserts a "window to the world was opened," as the disaster inadvertently cast a light on the research that Wood and her colleagues had been doing in the early 1990s with burns research at the cellular level, much of it influenced by earlier groundbreaking work in the '70s and '80s.
Wood says that fundamentally in order to heal a burns site "you have to have cells capable of developing into skin." Delving further into the science of her work she explains a core component of her burns research focuses on skin cell development going right down to, as Wood puts it, the "nano-structure level" of the skin cells. She says much of her career has looked at using cells from a "non-injured body site in an injured body site," clarifying that the injured site needs to be ready so the new cells prepare themselves appropriately for that environment. Essentially, she notes much of this involves preparing cells for development of "skin" as opposed to "scar" tissue. She explains that this is part of the overarching science that causes bodies to "self-organize" and involves the use of the nervous system as a "driver" of this process.
Fundamentally though, Wood is adamant that before researchers start working in the field of burns research at an in-depth level, they need to have a thorough understanding of the key literature in the area and to be able to maintain a constant level of awareness of the current research in the field. She says that one way researchers can keep abreast of major developments and stay at the "cutting edge" end of burns research is through attending important conferences in the field. She finds it is a vital way for researchers to not only learn from each other but also to truly gain some awareness of where burns research is.
Wood says peer review processes are used to maintain the quality of evidence in the field of burns treatment and experienced researchers have a good knowledge of the most reliable sources of information. In terms of current contemporary burns practice she asserts that INTEGRA Dermal Regeneration Template, an artificial skin substitute, is a current major burns treatment option by surgeons around the world, but there is room to improve it into the future.
The McComb Foundation, named after respected plastic and reconstructive surgeon Harold McComb, was established in 1999 by Wood (FRACS) in conjunction with scientist Marie Stoner with the aim to "advance the research and development of innovative tissue engineering technologies." The role of the Burns Challenge Ball is to raise awareness of the Foundation. Wood was adamant that if any fundraising event was to be held to support the Foundation, it had to be unique. She also wanted to make sure there was emphasis on constant movement and maintaining function, because this is an important part of burns recovery. For this reason the ball has a big focus on sport. Guests of the event have even included major Western Australian stars like champion batsman Justin Langer and West Coast Eagles captain Darren Glass.
Wood is a huge advocate of exercise in the burns healing process. She says more recent research demonstrates that there are connections between physical activity, exercise, and skin healing. She explains that these regeneration processes are related to changes within the brain that are triggered by exercise, noting that, fundamentally, these processes are also related to the way our body takes shape. For this reason the burns unit at Royal Perth Hospital has a facility for burns patients to exercise.
Such is her respect for and focus on exercise that it has become a profound part of her life. Wood is an avid cyclist, as it's difficult for her to run and it's something her children are passionate about. She has brought up her kids in an environment where they have learned to love sport, and as a mother of six as well as a health practitioner, she is pleased that her six children have grown up fit and healthy with a passion for exercise. The clear bond that Wood has with her family is evident, especially with their willingness to accommodate her huge workload. With her busy schedule and such a large family, she credits her family's teamwork for allowing her to manage her heavy workload. It's something that she remains ever grateful for.
Wood has graciously accepted an invitation to speak at the JBI National Australian Conference on evidence-based clinical leadership. She feels that good leadership is demonstrated through treating colleagues with integrity and having respect for other members of the team. She finds these elements are an important part of having a healthy clinical work environment. On the other hand, she notes that the chief barrier to an effective and positive work environment is bad communication. Wood has observed that communication is often best between colleagues who have worked around each other for a long time, whereas newer colleagues are likely to be affected by communication issues, most likely brought on by busy and hectic work environments. She says that to overcome this, people should take the time to communicate with newer and less experienced colleagues and to explain any points that require clarification.
As a member of the Joanna Briggs Foundation Advisory Board, Wood wants to make evidence accessible. She says there should always be a focus on improvement and a mentality that we need to keep moving forward at all times. She insists the job is never done and there is always so much more to do.
Fiona Wood is one of the keynote speakers at the JBI National Australian Conference on evidence-based clinical leadership in Adelaide, on Aug 13-14, 2012.
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