ACT Deputy Chief Health Officer Dr Vanessa Johnston reflects on year of putting up a brave face

Lottie Twyford 22 December 2021 11
ACT Deputy Chief Health Officer Dr Vanessa Johnston

ACT Deputy Chief Health Officer Dr Vanessa Johnston during one of her many press conferences in 2021. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

The measured tones and ACT Deputy Chief Health Officer Dr Vanessa Johnston and ACT Chief Health Officer Dr Kerryn Coleman were incredibly comforting to anxious Canberrans during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2021.

But for Dr Johnston, the year was about learning it’s OK to admit when you need to take a step back and ask for help. Dealing with the pressure of her position had taken its toll on Dr Johnston and her family by year’s end, and she is hopeful she’ll find that elusive work-life balance in 2022.

Dr Johnston shares some of her reflections of the year with Region Media.

The moment that defined 2021: It was spending a late night in the Health Emergency Coordination Centre (HECC) in mid-August with a large map of NSW trying to work out how to further limit movement into the ACT from our neighbouring jurisdiction, only to get a call from the lab to let us know that our wastewater had returned a positive COVID-19 result across the city, and knowing that Delta had arrived.

One lesson I learnt: That whether it’s a COVID-19 outbreak or another public health incident, you can always bank on it happening at 4 pm on a Friday afternoon.

Dr Kerryn Coleman

For a period during lockdown, ACT Chief Health Officer Dr Kerryn Coleman (pictured) or ACT Deputy Chief Health Officer Dr Vanessa Johnston fronted the public every day to provide updates on the COVID-19 situation. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

The highlight of the year: A personal highlight was getting in 10 days of camping – completely switched off – in a remote area of the Northern Territory.

We also managed to time it beautifully and were able to miss the June lockdown in Darwin and get home safely without having to quarantine.

A professional highlight was being able to celebrate the efforts of the COVID-19 Response Team at a reception at the Governor General’s beautiful residence. It was an honour and a wonderful way of celebrating all the hard work of our staff.

The hardest moment: Getting to the end of 2021 and seeing the toll my long hours and absence had on my partner and seven-year-old little girl.

I think the families of frontline workers in the COVID-19 response are the unsung heroes during this pandemic – they have kept us fed and clothed and loved through all of this.


READ ALSO: Close contact: how do you trace a virus through Canberra?


Leadership lesson: Being vulnerable and taking some time out when I reached my limit. Sometimes, as leaders, we fear showing vulnerability as it seems a sign of weakness. I’ve learnt it’s OK to show my team that sustaining this workload and pressure is hard.

I hope by trying to model self-care and letting my team know I took up the offer of a regular check-in with our free counselling service, I’ve opened up possibilities for others to do the same.

Something I’m proud of: The incredible response of ACT Health, Canberra Health Services and the whole government to the recent Delta outbreak.

I never thought it would be possible to emerge from lockdown, open up again and see single-digit COVID-19 days. But thanks to the enormous efforts of our response and vaccination teams, that is what happened.

And while the low case numbers are unlikely to continue as we transition to living with COVID-19, all Canberrans should be proud of their efforts this year to follow public health advice while all supporting one other.


READ ALSO: Ken Oath, brother! Canberra barber brings men’s mental health talk to the chair


What I wish I did differently: I wish I didn’t hit the snooze button as often as I did in the mornings when I tried to get some exercise in. I’ll need to spend some time during the summer break to shed some of the COVID-19 kilos.

My New Year’s Eve resolution: Hmm, if I’m honest, it’s the same New Year’s resolution I have been setting for the past few years: to have a better balance between work and my personal life. Maybe I will crack it next year.

What to expect from 2022: I’m looking forward to welcoming fresh faces and energy into the HECC as people who have worked so hard move on to other things. Personally, I’m also excited to take up the piano again.


What's Your Opinion?


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11 Responses to ACT Deputy Chief Health Officer Dr Vanessa Johnston reflects on year of putting up a brave face
Eve Cullen Eve Cullen 8:16 am 28 Dec 21

Cheers to you and all the staff in the health services and their families. Mammoth effort to have got us this far. It must be overwhelming at times. Me and my family appreciate you and yours. 🙏🙏🙏

Cary Elliot Johnson Cary Elliot Johnson 1:32 am 28 Dec 21

Maybe interview some coal face health workers and the toll it's had on them. Whilst at it, talk to them about their work conditions and pay. Many countries around the world are giving their frontline health workers covid bonuses. Here, for the love of it.... apparently

phydeaux phydeaux 7:26 pm 27 Dec 21

Paul Dali, what size do you think a potentially fatal virus ought to be?

Any cogent referential support for either of the fatuities in your second sentence?
For example, Doherty in his book and other writings very clearly and specifically distinguishes sars-cov-2 from a ‘flu virus, although using analogy (in some respects) can help simpler people make some sense of it

Paul Dali Paul Dali 5:35 pm 27 Dec 21

Just over a simple 0.2 micron in diametre virus.

This manufactured virus is like a bad flu according to Nobel Prize Winner Professor Peter Doherty.

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 7:29 pm 27 Dec 21

    Paul Dali "He (Professor Peter Doherty) also reiterated why you should get vaccinated, and why the coronavirus was nothing like the flu.

    “Unlike flu, this virus gets in your blood, goes around in your body and gets to the heart and all your other organs which doesn’t happen with flu,” he said."

    https://www.3aw.com.au/whats-surprised-professor-peter-doherty-about-the-pandemic-and-his-concerns-about-long-covid/

Lynne Audsley Lynne Audsley 3:22 pm 27 Dec 21

Thank you, Dr Johnson for your work. Your calmness (though probably like the swan’s- serene on top, pedalling furiously below!) has been much appreciated.

Mary-Jane Liddicoat Mary-Jane Liddicoat 2:57 pm 27 Dec 21

And she didn’t lose her business or her income. Imagine how non Major Corp business owners and employees have suffered

    Maree Commens Maree Commens 3:03 pm 27 Dec 21

    Mary-Jane Liddicoat agree imagine what Jing everything you have worked for disappear through no fault of your own - that is very sad

    Jen Jen Jen Jen 4:17 pm 27 Dec 21

    Mary-Jane Liddicoat imagine the 1000’s that would have died without health restrictions put in place.

    They had no choice in order to protect lives. It was a catch 22

John Elliott John Elliott 2:38 pm 27 Dec 21

I feel very sorry for these people, we are all in uncharted waters trying to deal with the Wuhan Virus.

Fred Smith Fred Smith 2:31 pm 27 Dec 21

Onya dr Johnson

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