Crushing On… Dr. Lynn Townsend, OBGYN

For the layperson, what does your role as an Obstetrician-Gynaecologist (O&G) entail and why did you choose this specialty? 

I was going to be a neurologist. I had done an undergraduate degree in neuroscience with honours and my honours project was in electrophysiology. I really enjoyed it and lined up a PhD. I was dead set going to be a neurologist… until I had a marvellous experience in my obstetrics and gynaecology term as a medical student. 

There are a few things that I love in O&G: 

First, I deliver a few babies each month – it’s so thrilling to be at somebody’s birth. Second, I’m a partner in a tertiary ultrasound clinic and I conduct ultrasounds – it is quite a heavy load in terms of clinical ultrasounds, prenatal diagnostics, and genetic counselling. It’s also a different side of an intellectual pursuit as a partner in a medium-sized company.

I also love my teaching component! Albeit a small load, I’ve been doing that for more than 10 years.  I absolutely love teaching – it keeps me up to date and I learn so much myself from my students.

Because I do a lot of different things, I generally work seven days a week!

If a zombie apocalypse occured tomorrow, what are five things you would grab and why?

First, I would take my thyroxine because I’ve got bad Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and I’m completely dependent on it.  

I would grab a pair of Neville Barnes Obstetric Forceps because when the zombie apocalypse hits, we are going to have to repopulate the earth. To do that, we need an instrument that is cleanable and accessible. You can deliver a lot of babies with Neville Barnes Obstetric Forceps. 

I would also grab my cats and my kids – I’m laughing at my priorities here! The cats are obviously less of a priority than my children but it’s the idea that when the plane’s going down, first put on your own oxygen mask

I’d grab my iPhone – but it would be pretty useless in a zombie apocalypse because zombies presumably will take over – just so my antenatals can contact me. 

You must be witness to some of the most amazing moments in a person’s life but also some of the most heartbreaking. How have you found these experiences?

Obstetrics is 99% joy and excitement but 1% of the time, you’re a part of someone’s worst day. Because of this, the most important thing in O&G is recognising that you can’t change some of the outcomes. I’ve diagnosed babies with bad cardiac abnormalities or brain abnormalities and fetal deaths that have occurred in utero. You just can’t change it but you can be there for people. 

Everybody’s got a story.

The thing I love about O&G is that it is about people and everybody’s got a story. You have got to make contact with people in the way that they need you at that moment in time. It’s incredibly rewarding for me to be on people’s journeys.

My favourite quote of yours is: “when everyone’s losing their shit, I am the centre of calm.” How have you developed this ability?

I’m not the centre of calm but I’m trying to be the centre of calm. 

I wasn’t always like that and I often used to lose my shit. I realised that the minute you lose your shit, you lose control of the situation. 

Sometimes you are in stressful situations with patients but you’re also the only person who can help. For example, I was very scared a few weeks ago but the patient thought that we were the centre of calm. Because we were calm and relaxed, she didn’t lose her mind. It’s taken my whole career in obstetrics to develop that skill. Just being myself allows me to reach in and fake it until you make it.

I know my limits and that’s really important – you can’t just pretend nothing is wrong when somebody is dying in front of you – you have to ask for help. But I know when we are on the right road and I know if I just remain calm it’s good for everybody around me, and it’s good for the patient if I can just work through the situation.

What is the most useful piece of advice you were ever given?

Well my wonderful mentor Dr Karen Mizia, who is an extraordinary obstetrician-gynaecologist, taught me: “Don’t make a rod for your back”. What she meant was: if you’re going to do something, do it. If you’re not going to do something, don’t do it. 

What it ultimately means is be honest and direct with what you can do, what you can’t do, what you’re planning on doing and what you don’t plan on doing. This fosters patient/doctor trust, because patients only trust doctors who come through with the goods. These words of wisdom have always stayed with me. 

Would you say for young women (across all disciplines) that finding a mentor is important?

Absolutely! I’ve been fortunate to have a few mentors. As mentioned, Karen Mizia and I have had parallel careers. For example, when she was a fellow, I was a senior registrar and when she was a consultant, I was her fellow. Now she is the medical director at the same ultrasound company that I’m a partner in! She has been a wonderful mentor in how to conduct myself as a person and as a doctor. She has encyclopedic knowledge, is extraordinary with patients and has the most incredible hands as a doctor. 

I have had other mentors who have taught me great things. My colleague, Dr Matthew Peres, taught me how to conduct myself as a director of a practice. That was very valuable.

Mentors are empowering because we can model ourselves on them. Karen and I are very different, but the skills that she has taught me as a doctor have been so valuable. I know she will remain as my mentor for my entire life. 

I would like to give a shout out to my mother! Female doctors were still uncommon when I went to school.  But from a young age, she encouraged and supported the crazy idea of me becoming a doctor. My mum told me I could do anything and that I could be as strong or submissive as I wanted. Mum really wanted to be an occupational therapist but because it wasn’t seen as a “proper” occupation for a woman in the 60s, she was denied that opportunity. Despite this, she ensured that I had access to the opportunities necessary to pursue what I wanted.       

Following on from this, what do you think women in non-medical careers can learn from women in medicine?

O&G is still a male-dominated world. Women are told to “dampen themselves, to be this, don’t be that and don’t be the other.” 

So I would tell women to be sure to surround yourself with people who raise you up and allow you to develop as a person. 

Finally, be true to yourself and have faith in your abilities. Men tend to be confident in their abilities, but as women, we lack self-confidence. Women still are learning this skill.

Outside of being a doctor, how do you look after yourself as a person?

I go to the gym 3-4 days a week and I do a heavy workout. I sing loudly in the car. I have good friends that I like to debrief to. 

I try to look for the passion… if I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing I would stop. I think seeking joy is important. 

My children bring me a lot of joy. Raising children is a beautiful process to be a part of because they have their own thoughts, desires, wants and needs. I live with three cool young women and they’re awesome, quirky, interesting and smart!!

Do you think that there is a pressure for female doctors to go into more feminine fields eg. obgyn, neonatal etc?

This is a difficult question. It’s not a feminine field just because we look after women. But we have to be feminists to be good obstetrician-gynaecologists! Traditionally O&G has been male-dominated and it is only recently that more than 50% of fellows in RANZCOG are women… 

I don’t think there is a pressure for women to go into more “feminine-type” specialities only because it hasn’t been a feminine field until recently. With that said, there are more female general practitioners because it is easier to balance home and work. In contrast, because surgeons might be in theatre for sixteen hours, it’s much more difficult to see your children, pack them lunch and send them off to school. 

Ultimately, I don’t think that there is more pressure, but the issue is that at some point she will need a male partner to be the primary parent and it will be difficult to work an 80 hour work week. Maybe that’s why I didn’t end up marrying a barrister or a doctor because I wanted someone who would share the parenting load and allow me the opportunity to be a doctor. You need to decide what you want and make a plan. 

If you could offer women one piece of advice about her body, what would it be?

Everybody looks the same from the waist down! When I’m doing a pelvic examination, I am blind to  about pubic hair, labia and the lumps and bumps. For example, when women apologise for not having had a wax – I don’t care! Just remember pubic hair is there for protection and nobody cares if you’ve got it. 

As a parting word, look after your body! You get to your mid-40’s like me and everything starts falling apart. Go to the gym, eat properly and stay off the sugar! 

Surround yourself with people who raise you up.

Lift yourself up, lift each other up, be kind to each other and be patient with the process.

Find a mentor, be a mentor, be the centre of calm. Find your passion, look after the people around you and allow them to look after you.

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