I’ve had a strong connection to neonatal and maternity care for most of my life, with my clinical experience with stillbirth really fueling my interest in researching and addressing the gaps in maternity care that can lead to better outcomes for families.
I grew up on a farm, poor as church mice, and left school early to pursue a career in nursing. Although it was over 50 years ago, I still remember the day I was accepted as a cadet nurse at the Royal Brisbane Hospital—it was a dream come true. I was drawn to the idea of doing something meaningful, something real, and went on to complete Midwifery, Child Health Nursing and Neonatal Nursing training.
My midwifery training was a key turning point in my life. This is where I wanted to be – helping new mums and babies to be healthy and happy. I hadn’t had my own children yet, and I found birth to be simply miraculous. Sharing this moment with mothers was a privilege that I never took for granted.
I was also drawn to caring for those families who had a lost a baby. It’s such an incredibly important role as a midwife and nurse. The care parents are given at the time of such an unfathomable loss is so important. I still re-live some of those moments of being with families suffering such intense grief and wonder what their journey has been like after such a loss. Their bravery has stuck with me.
It was this clinical experience that sparked my interest in research in the late 1990s. I worked as a research officer for Queensland Health, analysing the cause of stillbirths and neonatal deaths in Queensland and developing clinical practice guidelines for pregnancy care.
The lack of improvement in stillbirth rates and the high proportion of unexplained deaths, along with my clinical experience of loss, drove me to stay in this area. I found the possibility of being able to help more mothers and babies through research incredibly exciting. I completed my Masters in epidemiology and statistics at the University of Newcastle, and went on to finish my PhD in stillbirth prevention.
I began working with the International Stillbirth Alliance and was chair for six years. More than anything, I’ve found that learning from parents who have experienced stillbirth to be a constant inspiration. I was fortunate to be part of the leadership team working with The Lancet’s series “Bringing Stillbirths Out of the Shadows” in 2011 and 2016. This work resulted in the National Health and Medical Research Council funding to establish a Centre of Research Excellence in Stillbirth.
I have four adult children and three beautiful grandchildren, with one more on the way. Having my children has been the most wonderful experience of my life, followed very closely by my grandkids. Our life hasn’t been without loss, with two of my children experiencing the devastation of miscarriage, and my daughter Libby recently facing a tough journey with her baby girl, who came 6 weeks early and had two helicopter trips out of Stanthorpe for emergency care.
Giving children the best start to life is one of the most important things we can do for the world, and as someone who has had amazing mentors in my life, I strive to do the same for our upcoming leaders in the field who we need to keep this important work going.
Professor Vicki Flenady leads the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Centre of Research Excellence in Stillbirth, which aims to reduce stillbirths and improve care for families when a child is stillborn through high quality research and raising community awareness.