Healer of a devastated coastal community

That commitment grew over time and as the ability to recruit GPs to rural Australia has became more and more difficult, I found myself left “holding the baby”.  By 2016 I was mother of 3 children and a solo GP in a remote town.  The town had no other access to medical services and if for some reason I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing, all of my patients would lose their access to health care.  

Dr Sara Renwick-Lau is a rural General Practitioner, with a passion for providing the best possible health care that she can to the small remote communities that she is connected to.  She has been a Practice Principal of the Mallacoota Medical Centre for over 15 years.   With a patient base of just over 1000 people and at least 2 hours drive from the nearest hospital, at times Sara has served as the sole doctor in her small remote town, a town that is still recovering from unprecedented bushfires that saw apocalyptic images shared across global media in the summer of 2019/2020. . The devastation of the bushfires in East Gippsland and the northeast of Victoria is unimaginable, and Sara’s dedication to the town and the community is inspiring.

Sara started her career in the Northern Territory, working in remote Aboriginal communities and has since enjoyed mentoring medical students, teaching junior doctors, inspiring others in her work and advocating for access to health care for those living in rural areas.  Over the years, her life as a rural doctor has been shared in books, articles and documentaries.

As well providing comprehensive medical care to her patients, Dr Renwick-Lau has used her leadership skills to successfully develop new local health services for her patients, such as comprehensive cardiac services, mental health programs, Teen Clinic (adolescent drop-in health service), Alcohol and other Drug support, Specialist telehealth support services, Allied health services (dietician, exercise therapy, physiotherapy and occupational therapy), a locally based sleep service and the construction of a new Medical Centre building.

Sara is proud of her role in shaping the shared vision for health care in her community and in empowering her patients and community to be healthier, happier, more connected and more resilient.

As well as her commitment to medicine, Sara is a mother of 3, a surfer and an amateur equestrian.

Tell us about where your journey started

My mother’s family immigrated to Australia by ship as “30 Bob Poms” and I grew up in the factory town of Geelong.  My mother was a nurse, eventually working in a local high-school.  My father immigrated from Malaysia as a teenager.  His mother sent him by plane to Australia to “become a doctor”.  However, despite his best efforts at school, the pressure of living alone and away from his family, learning a new culture and navigating various student boarding houses, made study difficult.  He was accepted into university to study teaching, not medicine.  He met my mother during her nursing rounds while he worked part time as a hospital orderly.

My brother and I had a fun and love filled childhood and with both parents working at schools, we had every school holiday break together and countless family holidays, mostly camping, bushwalking and enjoying nature.  I had a pony and learned to ride, and we spent hot summer days swimming and body surfing at one of the Geelong surf coast beaches

For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a doctor.  I think it was the sense that it was the best way to help others and to relieve suffering, or perhaps an understanding of the inherent reward that comes from a life in serving others.  If you had asked me when I was 6, I would have said I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up.  When I was 16, I enjoyed the Navy Cadets and I would have said I wanted to be a doctor in the Navy or serving Australia in the United Nations forces wearing a pale blue beret. 

I was one of very few girls accepted into Medical School from my high school in Geelong and moving to the big city was a huge change and immensely challenging on every front.

I met my husband Marcus while we were both walking our dogs on a lazy Sunday afternoon at Princes Park in Carlton.  I was slogging through full time Medical School to get my degree and working part-time to pay the rent. Marcus was studying English Literature, feminism and philosophy for fun and living on the smell of an oily rag.  We were married at the registry office at the old Queen Victoria Hospital and had a small party, because getting married while still studying wasn’t  the “done thing” at the time.

I wasn’t the most studious of University attendees and we had few resources behind us, but with Marcus’ support and sheer force of will, I graduated from The University of Melbourne with my medical degree and he with his Honors Thesis in English. We realized that our sole reason for living in the city was no longer and so we decided to head to the Northern Territory with friends, to expand our horizons and start trying to make a difference.

What led you to work in the field you are in? 

I think I would describe myself as a bit of a rebel-without-a-cause. I enjoy change, I’m a novelty seeker and I seem to be a bit of a disrupter, with a compulsion to drive improvements and “be better”.  At medical school I found out that women didn’t traditionally become Orthopaedic Surgeons and so I immediately set my sights on Orthopaedics.  When I discovered that the culture of the specialty had a reputation for being a bit of a Boys club and that having “big hands” was considered a useful attribute, I realised that it might not be the best fit for me.

Eventually I landed on rural General Practice as a way to experience the freedom to Practice a broad scope (stave off boredom) and the sense that I could make a difference in the lives of whole communities. It has been a perfect fit.  Medicine, surgery, emergency care, critical care, prevention, public health, birth, death and everything in between – in many rural areas of Australia (and the world) the difference between good health care or no health care can often rely on the presence of one or two doctors or nurses. 

I decided that I wanted to be one of those health professionals, who used their training to take health care to places where there would otherwise be none. For me this meant putting aside my fears, uncertainty and imposter syndrome, in order to get out there and help. My first stint as a solo GP was on a remote Island in Arnhem Land looking after 2500 people.  I was very junior and had a lot to learn!  I look back now and realise that I didn’t know what I didn’t know.  It certainly fueled my passion to work in areas that were under serviced and would allow me to access rewarding experiences and encourage me to always expand my skills

In 2008, having just fully qualified as rural GP, our family came across a small town in Far East Gippsland nestled within thousands of hectares of national park, which to us was like heaven on Earth.  With dreams of immersing ourselves in the wonder of nature and rural life, I spoke to my accountant about purchasing a 1/3 of the practice from the 2 current local GPs.  My account said to me, “Young GPs don’t purchase practices these days”.  But he could see that I was determined and so conceded, advising me to wait 3 months and make sure it is what what I wanted before I signed anything.  Exactly 3 months later I made the commitment to become a rural GP practice owner.

That commitment grew over time and as the ability to recruit GPs to rural Australia has became more and more difficult, I found myself left “holding the baby”.  By 2016 I was mother of 3 children and a solo GP in a remote town.  The town had no other access to medical services and if for some reason I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing, all of my patients would lose their access to health care.  

At times I felt like I could have crumbled under the isolation and the responsibility, it was just me and I had a tiny team.  However, the tenuousness of the situation was not lost on my friends, family, co-workers and many others in the town around me.  So I decided to share my concerns about the vulnerability of health services and chose to ask for help from those who shared my passion for the ideal of equitable access to health care.  

One of the most surprisingly satisfying parts of my work as a General Practice Principal/owner, has been the opportunity to build a team who share my passions. Working with these people is like being in a well-orchestrated and harmonious choir.  For us it might be helping a patient navigate a complex health system and getting all the components to line up together, or it may be utilising a range of different peoples skills to ensure a patient has access to a treatment. Working as a team means sharing a vision, so that everyone can get in behind each other and know where they are going.  In this kind of environment, you can take risks and know that someone will have your back.  It helps us find really joy in our work – regardless of what we are faced with.

What are you passionate about & what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

I have so many passions that have led me down many different paths.   My overall goal has not really changed though, which is to live consciously, to be happy and healthy and to participate in helping others to do the same.  After the Black Summer bushfires  our town was isolated, disrupted, traumatised and changed.  We lived in a disaster zone for months and then COVID forced us all to live and work in unusual ways. As the dust settles, I have a sense that now is the time to build our family’s agency and to pursue our core, fundamental values. 

My number one priority has always been my family.  Although my work has demanded a lot of time and energy, I have always come back to the endless search for work-life-balance.  There are only so many times you can increase your capacity to squeeze it all in.  So for me, work-life balance is a constant and endless work-in-progress.  It is a matter of degrees of how out of balance I am,  the certainty for me is that it is difficult to get to balance and impossible to stay there.  But I just keep working on it, so when the passion for a new vision re-ignites,  I’m not exactly sure what direction it might be, but I am clearing the decks (so to speak) to make space and ensure that there is fuel in the tank.

What advice do you have for other women 40+ who are wanting to make an impact in the community or the world? 

Commitment to honest and sound ideals and values is the best way to find inherent reward in your work, no matter what your work is.  After this, the next best way to make an impact is to find others who share your values, as this enables you to come together as a collective, make a difference and create a meaningful life, connected with others.

 I also believe that it is really important to look backwards, to see those that have come before you. Perhaps you are branching out into something that is new and innovative, but acknowledging everyone in your team and those who has spent the time to share their knowledge and experience and also created  means understanding what has come before.  Who shoulders will assist you to rise to meet the next challenge?