Dr Stephen Warrillow (MBBS, 1996 & PhD, 2020) Director of Intensive Care at Austin Health & Director of the Critical Care Institute at Epworth HealthCare
For Dr Stephen Warrillow (MBBS, FRACP, FCICM) professional life has involved balancing the pressures of Intensive Care with the rigorous demands of a PhD, all in the midst of a global pandemic.
As the world closed borders, donned masks and stockpiled hand sanitizer, Dr. Stephen Warrillow completed his PhD.
As the Director of Intensive Care at Austin Health, the Director of the Critical Care Institute at Epworth HealthCare, Immediate Past-President of the Australian and New Zealand Intensive Care Society and convener of the World Congress of Intensive Care in Melbourne last year, his PhD has been far from his singular focus. Alongside these impressive roles, Dr Warrillow has spent a considerable portion of the past 10 years researching the management of patients with acute liver failure.
While most doctors are well-versed in the art of multitasking, the pursuit of academic progression while balancing multiple and demanding leadership roles is a formidable achievement. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the demands placed on Dr. Warrillow.
Under his direction, there has been a huge effort to prepare for a potential surge in demand for intensive care beds. This has required a coordinated response from clinical and non-clinical teams across hospitals to ensure that intensive care units are capable of major expansion if required. Dr. Warrillow has had to rapidly develop tiered, proportionate responses that incorporate clear thresholds for escalation across relevant hospital departments.
“We have practiced managing many scenarios and learned a lot through this as well as through regular correspondence with colleagues based in hard-hit regions around the world. We have had to develop effective communication strategies for team meetings and family meetings where face to face is not possible, using videoconferencing to assist with both clinical work and COVID-19 planning.”
With this universal threat looming, the focus for healthcare professionals has been on systematic planning to safeguard the future. “The lessons on preparedness will be important as we plan for potential future pandemics,” reflects Dr. Warrillow, “I think that there will be major changes with the way we organise education, research and administration with better use of videoconferencing and other strategies to enhance remote working.” For medical professionals at least, the fluctuating impact of infectious diseases throughout history is well-understood. But Dr. Warrillow believes that COVID-19 will encourage a “very different appreciation of biosecurity and the global vulnerability to complex threats” in broader society.
From as young as the age of eight, Dr. Warrillow recalls having an innate scientific curiosity that culminated in various, occasionally explosive, home experiments. His parents encouraged his interests and cultivated a sense of duty to help others. It would be in Year 10, however, as a fresh-faced work experience student at the Austin, that the idea to study Medicine firmly took hold in his mind as the ideal convergence of science and service. Interestingly, this mindset permeates his family, with all six of his siblings pursuing careers in some form of healthcare.
Leaving high school, Dr. Warrillow found the University of Melbourne an ideal choice, inspired by its academic excellence and cutting-edge scientific reputation. This choice was certainly sweetened by the knowledge that his girlfriend at the time (to whom he’s been married since third year) would be studying music at the conservatorium next door to the Melbourne Medical School. Nonetheless, Dr. Warrillow recalls that developing “the discipline and autonomy required for acquiring all of the skills and knowledge to practice medicine did not come easily at first. As I transitioned to clinical content, I suddenly found everything incredibly relevant and exciting.” He credits the teaching provided by senior doctors, but also affirms the value of each direct interaction with patients in cementing his love for medicine.
“Patients are also excellent teachers, and, in every encounter, I came to appreciate that there is a key learning if I was prepared to make the effort to seek it out.”
Dr. Warrillow’s path became clearer as he was drawn to the challenging and multidisciplinary world of the ICU. Though each day sees the pressures of tending to the sickest and most complex patients, it can also be a place of great compassion and trust. Dr. Warrillow reflects that “as a junior doctor I found acute medicine both fascinating and a little intimidating. Caring for the sickest patients in a major hospital is a real challenge as well as a daily exercise in humility.” Having the ability to provide technologically advanced interventions to a patient who might otherwise die and maybe provide an opportunity for them to recover can feel almost miraculous. “Above all else,” says Dr. Warrillow, “it is a privilege to support patients and families as they experience some of the best and worst events of their lives.”
For many, the global COVID-19 pandemic has stirred a sense of uncertainty and disillusionment. Despite this, Dr. Warrillow affirms the many sources of hope and light. The most unexpected lesson for Dr Warrillow throughout his career has been how similar people are when dealing with major challenges, and the universality of experience regardless of background, education, culture or religion. When we refuse to be distracted by our differences, he sees a future marked by immense potential.
Working on the frontline of a major health crisis, Dr. Warrillow is regularly reminded of both the fragility and the resilience of the human spirit. He maintains that “Humanity, despite our various flaws, is capable of remarkable achievement when we promote our best selves.” This inspires confidence in him that despite multitudinous challenges, we are capable of finding solutions if we set aside differences and recognise all that we have in common.