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Published Thursday 25 Jan 2024

Dr Sinéad Donnelly has recently been promoted to Professor at University of Otago, Wellington. 

Dr Donnelly has been working with the University of Otago since 2009, and this promotion is a sign of her dedication to palliative medicine, in her work, research and teaching.  

We caught up with her to discuss the promotion, her career and why she is interested in palliative medicine. We also got an insight into the delicate balance of clinical practice, teaching, and research she juggles.  

What was your reaction when you found out you had been promoted to Professor?  
I was delighted. I got a phone call from the University of Otago Acting Vice-Chancellor, Professor Helen Nicholson. I jumped around the office on 5S (there was no one else in the office at the time). I was eager to let my family in Ireland know. Our father died in September so they appreciated the good news.  

What inspired you to pursue a path in palliative medicine, and how has your journey shaped your approach to patient care?  
My father was a great physician, and our whole family followed him into medicine. His holistic care of patient’s needs, combined with his disciplined application of clinical practice inspired us all to go into health care professions.  

Palliative care is the phrase used to describe the holistic approach to care of patients who are dying and supporting their whanau. That means the palliative care team takes an interest in the physical, emotional social and spiritual well-being of the patient. The word “palliative” was coined by a Quebec surgeon Balfour Mount, deriving the word from Latin “pallium” for cloak or shield. The meaning being that one is cloaking or shielding the person who is approaching death in care.   

I was also inspired by the first palliative medicine physicians in Ireland; Dr Michael Kearney and Prof Tony O’Brien. I had the privilege to work with both of them.   

How do you balance clinical practice, teaching, and any research responsibilities in your daily schedule?  
I was lucky to start early in research. I began as a first-year house surgeon co-authoring a paper in cardiology titled ‘Familial hypertrophic cardiomyopathy with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome maps to a locus on chromosome 7q3.’ How impressive was that for a future palliative medicine physician!  

During my training in Ireland, it was expected that consultant physician’s work would include leadership, teaching and research as part of their professional life.   

My advice to anyone in a similar position is to start early and keep going. Publish or perish might also be good advice (although it sounds a bit dramatic).   

What skills and qualities do you believe are essential for a palliative physician, and how do you cultivate these in yourself and your students?  
The first skill required for palliative medicine is the same as that required in any branch of medicine or surgery - to care for the person; another human being who is suffering and vulnerable. However, it is most important to get the best training you can in clinical skills and knowledge.    

From that firm foundation, you can then develop the deeper skills of listening, self-awareness and the ability to be with a patient who is dying or facing their death. It is indeed an invaluable quality as a surgeon or a physician or a GP to be able to attend to the suffering of another human being. It is however not much value to the patient if you are an empathic listener but do not have the skills nor ability to support and relieve their distress.  

 Based on my current research, I think we urgently need to be mindful of the impact on and the burden carried by senior doctors (both physicians and surgeons) working in hospitals especially when helping patients at the end of their lives.   

Aside from through your work, research and teaching, are there other way you contribute to the palliative medicine community?
I’m involved with two groups; Palliative Care Collaboration Aotearoa and Hospital Palliative Care Aotearoa.   

Palliative Care Collaborative Aotearoa is the recently formed peak body advocating for the equitable and sustainable development of palliative care in Aotearoa. Currently, Aotearoa lags behind other countries in not having a national plan for the development of palliative care for all its people.   

Palliative care service is not an add-on charity to be funded by Op Shop donations. It’s an essential service, as essential as for example intensive care or neurosurgery.  

Hospital Palliative Care Aotearoa is a network of clinicians including nurses, doctors, and pharmacists who provide palliative care in hospitals throughout Aotearoa. Hospital Palliative Care is a somewhat invisible aspect of palliative care yet so many patients requiring palliative care attend hospitals in their last few years, days or months of life. Its value is exemplified in the great respect and esteem in which our Wellington and Hutt Hospital palliative care teams are held.  

You’ve recently directed your sixth documentary. How did you got into this form of media and how you use these documentaries in a teaching environment?  
I started producing documentaries in Ireland where I was successful in being funded by the national television station RTE and TG4. My purpose was, and still is, to share real stories of extraordinary people with lay and health care audiences. A natural progression from producing a documentary is to use it in my teaching   

As a palliative medicine doctor, I meet patients who are facing their imminent death and meet their caring whānau whose stories are inspiring. My reaction often is how to let more people hear these stories or meet these great people. That is when it occurs to me ‘I could make a documentary’. In that way these ordinary people speak directly to the audience.   

My most recent documentary premiered in November at the Roxy Cinema, Miramar. Much to my delight, it will be broadcast on Whakaata Māori later this year. ‘Te Whakahemohemo The Way We Care’ features the stories of five whānau who cared for a relative who was dying. The stories also reveal the care provided to these whānau by nurses and doctors in the home, in hospital and in hospice. These stories celebrate the way we care. In our fast-paced lives of today, we need to be reminded of what really matters.   

In this documentary, the focus is on the gift, the aroha and challenges of caring for someone who is dying. My hope is that the people on screen will be like pebbles thrown into the pool of life whose courage and care create ever expanding ripples.  

In addition to the topic of palliative care, I have also produced documentaries on social justice issues. ‘Arohanoa - the story of Challenge 2000’ tells the story of a unique Johnsonville organisation that provides support for struggling youth. And ‘A Parish Apart’ tells the story of a Wairarapa community of people who forged a unique path on their spiritual journey.  

What's the process regarding being promoted to Professor from here? Will there be a ceremony? 
I understand there will be an inaugural professorial lecture in September. That will be exciting. Though I guess I will have to think about what to say but I do have plenty of time! 

Any final words of advice or guidance for people wanting to get into a career in medicine and specialising in palliative care? 
Being from Ireland and having Irish as my first language gives me an understanding of the gift that is a native language, culture and tradition. I am guided by two valuable Whakatauki or Seanfhocail as we say in Ireland: ‘Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí - praise the young and they will respond’ and ‘Ar scáth a céile a mhaireann na daoine - in the shade or protection of each other the people survive and live.’