22 December 2021

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

| Lottie Twyford
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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