Where are they now? Dr Nicole Williams (1995)
My time at Pymble was a happy whirlwind of friendships, studies, music and sport. I started in Year 7, 1990 on a combined music and academic scholarship and by the end of Year 12, 1995, I had joined the concert band, orchestra, choir, flute ensemble and early music consort. I also participated in IGSSA athletics, cross country and tennis (with no talent whatsoever in tennis). I have such happy memories of trips away for band competitions, practising shot put and discus in the nets by the creek, running around the school grounds for cross country training and always lots of laughing. I also fondly remember hours on the phone with friends as we collaborated to solve our calculus problems and balance our chemistry equations. I was extremely honoured when all this activity and study was rewarded with a beautiful coffee table book of Van Gogh paintings as the prize for Best All Round Girl in Year 12, a College Gold Medallion and a place in medical school at Newcastle University.
Since leaving school, I’ve continued to be “Little Miss Participation”, as my friends named me in our Year 12 yearbook. During university, I kept up athletics training for fitness and surprised myself by qualifying for the 800m and 1500m at the National Championships in 2000. This was run as a practice event for the Sydney Olympics at the Olympic stadium and the stands were full of cheering schoolchildren. The atmosphere was amazing. I competed in athletics for multiple university games around Australia, was female team captain for the Newcastle University team and received a university sports scholarship and a sporting blue for athletics.
With all this sporting activity, I thought I might like to be a sports doctor. I took a year out of medical school to complete an honours project investigating the effects of exercise on the immune system and finding medical reasons for poor performance in elite athletes. I travelled to Baltimore in the USA to present my research at a satellite conference of the American College of Sports Medicine and enjoyed learning about what was involved in medical research. I was named the NSW Young Australian of the Year for Science and Technology after that research year and I was awarded a Centenary Medal for Contribution to Australian Society. I kept up some research, along with my medical studies and co-authored a paper on how medical schools can address inequities in health and another on training medical students using competency-based rather than time-based training.
In my second last year of medical school, while assisting in surgery to fix an elderly lady’s fractured hip, I decided that I wanted to be an orthopaedic surgeon. This specialty teamed up all the things I enjoyed about medicine such as helping people and solving problems with the practical skills of using tools to fix something that was broken. Orthopaedic surgery isn’t a popular career choice for females. The year I finished my training, only 2.8% of Australian orthopaedic surgeons were female. It is still only around 4%. Some of my medical school mentors cautioned me about orthopaedic surgery saying that it is very hard work, a boys club and a poor lifestyle choice. I wasn’t put off. After all, I wasn’t one of the naturally gifted athletes at school but ultimately performed reasonably well in athletics because I was persistent with training and, most importantly, I enjoyed it. I was sure I could make a career in orthopaedic surgery work. During my training I kept my head down, moved from hospital to hospital and enjoyed looking after all the patients and their families and getting to know the medical, nursing and other hospital staff that I met along the way. I found the decision making and the surgery exhilarating and challenging.
I found that I particularly enjoyed working with children, probably a legacy of many hours of babysitting, a casual job working as a fairy at children’s birthday parties, coaching Little Athletics and teaching the flute. After I completed my orthopaedic training, I spent 6 months at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Portland, Oregon, USA and then moved to Adelaide for what was meant to be a 12-month position as the Paediatric Orthopaedic Fellow at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital. A short time later, I met my now husband when we were both running with the South Australian Road Runners Club. He had moved to Adelaide from the UK on what was meant to be a 2-year secondment. Over 10 years and 2 beautiful daughters later, we are still living in Adelaide.
Leadership, education and research have been major components of my career so far. While I love treating my individual patients, establishing trust with the parents and caregivers and performing surgery, the other facets allow me to work with a team to improve patient care over a broader scale. It also allows me to work with and mentor the next generation of doctors, surgeons and researchers. I get such a thrill when one of my students presents their research findings for the first time at a meeting or sees their name in a published scientific article.
In 2016 I received a Royal Australasian College of Surgeons Scholarship to work at Great Ormond Street Hospital, London conducting research into whether orthopaedic surgery improves quality of life and function for children suffering from a metabolic condition called mucopolysaccharidosis that affects their bones and joints. My research in this area has also seen me travel as an invited speaker to Seoul, Taipei, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Auckland and Lisbon. I have also travelled to Fiji, Samoa and Solomon Islands to assist with clubfoot training courses, conduct lectures and workshops in paediatric orthopaedics and assist local surgeons with operations and clinics as part of the Australian Orthopaedic Association’s Orthopaedic Outreach and the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons Pacific Island Project. We’ve moved all these education sessions online with COVID but I look forward to seeing all my friends and colleagues overseas in person when travel is re-established.
Perhaps being a Monitress, Prefect and Deputy Captain of Music and the Arts at Pymble set me up for my current and past roles as President of the Australian Paediatric Orthopaedic Society, Head of Orthopaedic Surgery and Co-Director of the Major Trauma Service at the Adelaide Women’s and Children’s Hospital and Deputy Chair of the Australian Orthopaedic Association’s Federal Training Committee. As a member of the Australian Orthopaedic Association Orthopaedic Women’s Link Committee and through my Training Committee roles I have been able to work with a team to improve working conditions for orthopaedic surgeons and trainees with families, such as improving access to flexible training arrangements, mandatory childcare and breastfeeding facilities at conferences and providing education and support to assist orthopaedic surgeons and trainees who are pregnant or breastfeeding. I was part of the Australian Orthopaedic Association’s #OrthopaedicParents campaign. I am currently working with a passionate PhD student on a project identifying factors that impact burnout and psychological wellbeing in Australian postgraduate medical trainees.
Throughout my busy, exciting working life, my family is still my priority. My daughters are now 5 and 8 and I make sure that I’m there watching them at every sports day, concert and presentation. They are now exploring a range of music and sporting activities and we have a lot of fun trying different things together. My latest hobby is Irish dancing which my 8 year old excels at. I think my ability is about as good as my tennis. Another fun family activity is boating and watersports. I’m not yet game to try waterskiing but I love kneeboarding. I still get my flute out every so often. Playing The Last Post at the end of my driveway and participating in the Pymble virtual choir and orchestra project were two lovely moments in an otherwise challenging 2020. My daughters hear all about my work and like to come along for ward rounds when they can. At the moment my little girl thinks she wants to be a surgeon like mummy and my big girl is tossing up between doctor, engineer with the Australian Space Agency and professional footballer. It’s nice to have options.