Mother’s Day special

In celebration of Mother’s Day we’ve chosen to shine a spotlight on the amazing achievements of Olivia Ong, who started her family after becoming a paraplegic while at the same time gaining further qualifications and furthering her career as a specialist doctor. She is now mother to Joseph, seven, and Jacqueline, who is almost two. The birth of Jacqueline threatened to push Olivia over the edge, but instead, it proved to be the catalyst that launched an amazing rejuvenation, the benefits of which Olivia is now seeking to spread all around the world to her fellow physicians.

Olivia Ong: The Heart-Centred Doctor

“On one fine spring day in 2008, my life changed forever. I was walking to work when I was hit by a car at high speed. … The experience was a radical awakening. I was told that I would never walk again.”

Many readers who have undergone a traumatic spinal cord injury will relate to this, as I do, having been hit by a car at the end of my 20km cycling commute to work one fine spring day in 2010. Olivia – a personal acquaintance – and I have other things in common. We both have Singaporean heritage but live in Melbourne. We both have incomplete injuries, retaining varying degrees of movement and sensation below the level of injury. We both travelled to Project Walk, the Centre for Spinal Cord Injury Recovery near San Diego, to undertake intensive exercise therapy which we both continued in Melbourne at Walk On (now rebranded as Neuromoves). We were both lucky and determined enough that we did learn to walk again – she much better than I! (Maybe I should have stayed as long as she did – three years – instead of only two months…) And we both managed to restart our careers after extended periods of rehab. While she was not exactly an inspiration for me, she was certainly a trailblazer, and one of the people I turned to for advice when I was considering travelling to Project Walk.

At the time of her accident, Olivia was a junior doctor and when she returned home from California in 2012 she continued her studies and became a dual-trained rehabilitation and specialist pain medicine physician – an extremely powerful combination given her life experience. Soon after, in 2015, she became a mum to her son Joseph. As any mum will tell you, juggling motherhood with a career is difficult at the best of times – even with the supportive husband, family and friends that Olivia was lucky enough to have – let alone a high-powered job on top of a spinal cord injury, with all that brings in terms of pain, fatigue and other complications.

“I was on the verge of burnout and in dire need of change. I felt emotionally and physically exhausted, stuck in my situation, and completely isolated and invisible in my suffering. The combination of living with a spinal cord injury, motherhood, full-time work, and studying for fellowship exams exhausted me. I ignored the warning signs of burnout such as becoming overwhelmed, constantly worrying and stressed over small things and not sleeping well. I felt disconnected from myself and others around me.” In fact, so much so that at one point she was so preoccupied with work that she ignored her son Joseph when he tried to show her a picture of a giraffe that he had drawn. It was when he asked her, “Do you still love me, mummy?” that she realised something was seriously wrong.

At first she, like many others in the health profession, kept stubbornly pushing through. She soon realised she was far from alone in feeling this way as a doctor: by many in the profession, it is seen as a sign of weakness to admit feeling overwhelmed. She learned that 400 physicians take their own life each year in the US – double the rate of the general population and higher than any other profession, including combat veterans. She personally witnessed many of her medical colleagues experience burnout, which is not surprising when more than 40% of doctors – and almost 50% of female physicians – admit to feeling that way in spite of the stigma.

Then came the pandemic, when health workers were suddenly put under almost unbearable pressure. And, for Olivia, there came a second child: Jacqueline, who was born just before Melbourne entered stage 4 lockdown in July 2020. Recovering from a Caesarean section, hormonally challenged and living in isolation, Olivia found herself staring down the abyss of despair when she realised she would have to dig deep yet again and draw on the resilience that literally got her back on her feet after her accident.

Except this time it was different: Olivia signed up for a life-changing, online intensive course held by the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, which led her to the realisation that perseverance and grit were not the answer. Indeed, these could actually be seen as the cause of burnout: physicians simply pushing on through exhaustion and fatigue with no regard for their own physical and emotional well-being. First, she put in place a number of simple but profound self-care strategies that helped her to become more mindful and self-compassionate for herself and her family. But she also realised that the ramifications went further than that.
“Self-compassion entails acknowledging that we are suffering, that we are all in it together and that we need to love and be kind to ourselves before we can really do the same for others. For the first time in my life, I found a place of peace and power within myself through self-compassion. I believe that creating a ripple effect from self-compassion is the best way forward for us as a collective.”

This was nothing short of a revelation: “Not only was I not willing to live with fatigue and overwhelm, but I knew that if I could change, so could others.” And so a new mission was born: she became a leadership and career coach for medical doctors so that they could learn from her experience and become what she describes as “heart-centred” physicians, able to rediscover their self-worth, avoid burnout and ultimately serve their patients better while preserving their own well-being. “Doctors must first acknowledge, and then heal, their pain and suffering with self-compassion. They have to do this for their own sake first and then for the sake of their patients and communities.”

Reinventing herself yet again, Olivia became the founding CEO of The Heart-Centred Doctor, created a website and wrote The Heart-Centredness of Medicine, which was published in August 2021. Now, in addition to her work in the field as a specialist pain medicine and rehabilitation physician – not to mention being a mother to two young children – she also offers one-on-one and group coaching, workshops, and speaks frequently on burnout, compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma in doctors. She believes that this will not only help her current peers, but will also help to change the prevailing mindset among physicians and health workers in the hope of creating a positive legacy for future generations.

Olivia’s most recent initiative is the creation of a Radical Resilience MD Leadership Program – as an accredited and certified resilience work coach over and above her dual medical qualifications – which will be accompanied by a book she is co-authoring. We wish her all the best in her latest venture, and wonder what is next for this wonder mum!