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What makes a mother of triplets work 18 hours a day?
10 July 2014
Phoebe Williams (above) was convinced she was going to die.
She was 14 years old and had contracted Meningococcal meningitis. Her family and the medical staff looking after her feared the worst, especially when she slipped into a coma. Phoebe remained in the coma for three days before drifting in and out of consciousness over the next week. She eventually made a complete recovery.
Now 31, and the mother of three-year-old triplets, Phoebe is a paediatric registrar at Sydney Children’s Hospital Randwick, studying to be a paediatric physician. She is also an Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence awardee, a professional member of the Guardianship Tribunal of NSW, a lecturer and tutor in the Masters of International Public Health program at Sydney University, a teacher at NSW University Medical Faculty and the founder of the non-government organisation (NGO) Hands of Help, which works in the community health and education space, predominantly in Africa.
Phoebe’s close call at 14 with what doctors commonly describe as the “well-at-breakfast-and-dead-by-dinner” disease left her knowing one thing: “I wanted my life to be as useful as possible to as many people as possible.”
Modest to a fault about her achievements, she says her husband constantly ribs her about her habit of having so many things on the go at once.
“I always manage to get them done. Luckily, I was born efficient,” she explains, noting that she doesn’t think she’s done anything very useful yet.
“I hope that’s still ahead of me,” she says. However, she eventually acknowledges that the sponsorship program run in Kenya by her Hands of Help organisation in association with the American group AKIN (African Kids in Need) has a “good ripple effect”.
“We provide kids who would not have received a secondary education with the chance to get one,” says Phoebe.
Young woman leader
An ANU commerce and psychology undergraduate, in 2005 Phoebe went to Sydney University to do medicine and later attended Oxford University for her masters. Somewhere in there she also founded Hands of Help.
“I never set out to start an NGO – there’re enough of those in the world. I was working in development economics while at ANU and went to Africa. Then in 2005 I started med school and thought, I wonder if anyone else is interested in doing something about health and education in developing nations. I didn’t know anyone when I arrived at Sydney but sent out an email anyway to see if there was any interest. There was this massive response and by the end of the year there were 17 of us going to Africa. We needed around $38,000 to get there and over the year we raised $100,000.”
And that, explains Phoebe, was how Hands of Help was founded to administer and run the project.
The organisation has established a trust fund which is funding former street children and orphans in Kenya to attend medical school (its school sponsorship graduates)..
Hands of Help also aims to improve development and outcomes for women and children through health and education and it does this in conjunction with the local community. In, for example, the Ugandan health program, it is the community that elects who they would like to have trained as their health leaders and Hands of Help then takes them through a six-month training program.
If Phoebe had to think of the one phrase she would want associated with the work Hands of Help does, it is “community empowerment”.
“The whole idea,” she also notes, “was to open medical students’ eyes to the real health issues in the world and international public health issues; to widen the experience a medical student might have.
“I want people to pursue their dreams and consider that medicine/health is about more than a single patient on a bed. It’s everything from their guardianship to international public health issues and everything in between. I think it’s important to broaden yourself around what can be done in a career.”
Family and career
Phoebe is also keen to model (for women especially) the fact that career and family can be successfully developed in tandem.
“I didn’t want to put career first over family. I wanted to develop them in tandem and I’m proud of the fact I’ve been able to do that,” Phoebe says, noting that it hasn’t changed the surprise she still feels every morning walking in to find triplets looking up at her.
“Twins and triplets run in the family. Triplets are a high risk pregnancy. We never completely believed we were going to get through the pregnancy, and when the triplets were born very early at 30 weeks things were pretty touch and go. To have them come through unscathed by their early arrival, we’ve been incredibly fortunate,” she explains.
Phoebe rates her greatest achievement so far as the successful breast feeding of her babies: “Getting premature babies home in the middle of winter you are, in my experience, almost guaranteed a trip to the hospital. We still haven’t had a trip to hospital. I literally breast fed around the clock. It was the biggest personal sacrifice and commitment of anything I have ever done.”
Given this experience and her work in paediatrics, Phoebe is uniquely positioned to talk to parents about the benefits of breast feeding, the common problems and how to get over them.
“I really want to focus on health and nutrition from a preventative point of view and get the public health messages around breast feeding out into the community. In Australia I think the biggest cause of paediatric morbidity stems from poor nutrition habits and knowledge.”
Pale from lack of sunlight, tired, over-coffeed, overworked; these are the words Phoebe uses to describe herself, and yet, she says, she’s absolutely in love with her life and her work.
“I’m up at 5am and on the go until 11pm. When I’m not working I juggle the children. I enjoy running and ran my first marathon last year. I’m never on time anywhere. To be honest there’s only one thing I’d really like to change and that’s my children’s drop off and pick up times for day care. It is the biggest day-to-day stress of my life. For a shift worker - and for my husband, whose work also doesn’t fit the child pick-up rule - it is a nightmare. Greater flexibility in child-care hours for working parents, that’s something I’d change,” Phoebe admits without hesitation.
The 2014 Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence awards are open until August 10. Nominate yours now.