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"Whole Person Wellness"

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Megan Walker: Hello, and welcome to Market Savvy Conversations. My name is Megan Walker and today our very special guest is Dr Peta Wright, who's a Gynecologist, Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecologist, and Fertility Specialist, and the director of the newly started Vera Women's Wellness. Hi, Peta, how are you?

Peta Wright: Hi, Megan. I'm great. Thank you so much for having me.

Megan Walker: You're so welcome, I've been looking forward to this conversation. Today we're going to be talking about whole person wellness, which I know that you're incredibly passionate about, but just to start us off, Peta, give us the background, where did you do your studies, your training, what's been your journey to date?

Peta Wright: So my early journey was fairly conventional. I went to medical school straight out of high school at 17, graduated from Monash University in Melbourne at the ripe old age of 23 and was an intern, and then decided to do gynecology and obstetrics a couple of years out. I did a little bit of a stint in the Northern Territory and did some Indigenous health in between, did the majority of my training in obstetrics and gynecology in Melbourne before moving to Darwin in fourth year of my training, I think, and I did a really amazing job that was a fly-in, fly-out outreach job flying around all of the top end, all the islands to Wadeye in the west, and Borroloola in the east, and down to Katherine, which was an incredible experience actually.

And then to Brisbane after that to finish off my training, and I did a fellowship year in adolescent and pediatric gynecology at the Royal. And then I've been in private practice plus I've had an adolescent or young women's clinic publicly ever since. And then now I've just been in private probably for the last year, and I do fertility and gynecology, gave up obstetrics when my little boy was born because my husband's an obstetrician and it would be crazy to have two of us having to get up in the middle of the night to do deliveries, one obstetrician in the family is absolutely enough. And I also found that my passion actually was in hearing women's stories and really dealing with many of the issues that seemed, not in the too hard basket but perhaps were not... women weren't validated or listened to as much with.

So I do gynecology and fertility now, and I'm just within one or two weeks about to embark on opening my own holistic women's health clinic called Vera Women's Wellness, which is a bit different, it's out in the country, about 35 minutes outside of Brisbane, set in the hills in the Samford Valley so really incorporating that natural world and just creating a little bit of a haven for women to come to. My hands completely... I've been gardening I've been planting about a hundred plants in this beautiful garden for women to come and sit, and with every plant I'm thinking I'm creating this beautiful place because I don't think there are enough beautiful places of refuge for women and so I'm hoping that Vera will be that for women. So that's my story in a nutshell.

Megan Walker: That's amazing. I want to ask you more about Vera, and what you'll offer, and what will happen there soon, but just tell me, going back a little bit, you talked about issues that possibly some might be putting in the too hard basket, would you mind expanding on that a little bit, what do you think some of those women's wellness issues are?

Peta Wright: So the more and more I did private practice, the more I realised that gynecological issues aren't just in a silo, it's not like women come in with a gynecological issue that is disconnected from the rest of their physical health, the rest of their emotional health, or what's going on in their lives at large. And I found that when I took the time to... when I started to understand that my appointments would always run over because I would realise that everything was connected, and period problems, hormonal issues, all of that is connected to underlying health, and that's very, very clear, and there's so much research and science to demonstrate that.

And then I see a lot of women with chronic pain, so chronic conditions like endometriosis pain, hormonal issues like premenstrual dysphoric disorder, other hormonal issues like polycystic ovarian syndrome, perimenopause and menopause. And all of those things obviously have biological underpinnings, but there's that psychosocial aspect that also play into it. And women are complex creatures and I think the way that you learn conventional gynecology, it's someone presents with a symptom, you treat the symptom, and that might be with medication to... as an example, a period problem, shut down the symptom by shutting off the menstrual cycle with, for example, the oral contraceptive pill, someone has pain, you do a surgery, you remove endometriosis.

Unfortunately I wish those things worked and sometimes they do, but in the vast majority of cases it's just not that simple. And the current paradigm that women's health care is symptom, band-aid approach, that's the end of the story, just doesn't work. And the more and more and more women that I saw and realised that, "No, it's a whole person picture and I need to take the time to understand this woman's story." I couldn't go back to doing it the other way. I just couldn't. And so I did some further training in integrative medicine, I guess, for women. And yeah, now, if someone comes to see me, they might wonder why I'm asking them about their diet, or one of the questions I always ask women is, "What makes your soul sing, and are you doing it?" Things like that, to capture the whole woman's story.

And I think that that's the kind of medicine that works, it takes a long time, and our health system is not set up to support practitioners to do that on every level with GPs, with specialists. Even with me setting up this new clinic now, because I believe so strongly in giving women the time to tell their story and then to explore each aspect of their story and component of their health, I'm seeing patients for longer, so one and a half hours for a new appointment which is how long it often takes for complex things. But the Medicare system is so broken that it just... for a gynecological visit, basically the Medicare rebate for a patient is the same as what you would get if you were seeing a surgeon for a surgical problem. So it's like Medicare or the health system has oversimplified women's problems to be either a quick surgical fix, or a quick medical fix, and we are humans, we're complex, it doesn't work like that.

And then I think as a health professional, when you realise that there's this other way, that it's a better way, but it is more time consuming, the patient doesn't get remunerated for that, the clinician doesn't get remunerated for a longer visit often, especially specialists, it can be really difficult, but I still think it's just the only way. So that's why I created this new clinic and a new way to do things.

Megan Walker: Oh, amazing. And in addition to the system being the way the system is and treating symptoms, is there also... it seems every single woman I speak to you, I mean, I can walk from here to the end of the street and run into three neighbours and all of them have got hormone problems, and I say "go talk to Peta Wright." And is it just that my radar is aware, or have we got so many more people … tell me about this epidemic that it seems to be around women's health issues as well.

Peta Wright: Okay, this is a big topic. So I think it goes from... Okay, so back to... This isn't even really medical, but I think that women have been conditioned to almost think our bodies are not... When we go through puberty, that's not really celebrated, when we get up period, that's not celebrated as something incredible that's happening in our bodies, there's this sort of inherited kind of shame, even if it's not explicit that I think has been just... We carry sort of in our DNA as women.

And then from the first period, if women have painful periods, or irregular periods, or whatever, the education and the understanding of what's happening in their bodies, because their fix is, "Here's the pill." Rather than, "Okay, this is what's happening in your body, this is what's happening as your reproductive system is developing. Here are the ways we can support it. Here are the things you can do in terms of diet and rest and movement, and let's celebrate the fact that your body is doing these amazing things." It's, "Oh, this is going to be terrible." Right from the get-go and your body's broken right from the get-go. And I think women internalise that, that's part of the problem.

And of course, if you then go to a healthcare provider and you say with your 12 year old daughter she's got heavier painful periods, and the doctor says, "Well, the solution is to turn off your whole reproductive system with the pill." Which yes, in some cases is maybe appropriate and may be a great idea for that person, but without any understanding of, "Okay, how..." Of explanation of what's actually happening in that woman's body, how they might be able to modify things and treat the root cause as opposed to just turn everything off because if the solution is turn off your reproductive system, then the message to that young woman is, "Inherently, there must be something wrong with me. My female body is inherently wrong, that I must have something wrong to completely turn it off."

I think that's part of it, and then we carry that through our lives. I think that our hormonal cycles are so misunderstood, the number of times I've sat in front of a woman to talk about what's actually happening with her hormones through the month, and they don't know because no one's told them, they might've got the basic... Everyone generally gets the basic education about, you get a period, and then your period's there, and then a month later it comes again. And then some understanding that ovulation happens in the middle there, but there's not really any basic understanding of the fact that throughout the month, our hormones are rising and falling, and not which hormones are rising and falling, how those hormones affect our mood, our emotions, our energy levels, the way we connect and relate to other people in our lives, how we relate to ourselves, and down to the level of our metabolism, our muscle recovery, our immune system, there's such intricacy in the way our hormones rise, fall, fluctuate, and how that affects our underlying physiology that we're not aware of.

So of course, if you've got a woman that is expected, because in society, we expect women to operate on the same level every single day exactly like a man, because a man’s cycles are testosterone rises in the morning, and very conveniently for men, falls in the evening when they get to go to sleep and then wake up in the morning and have high testosterone, very convenient if you're a man. But if you're a woman, you don't have that. So your hormones will fluctuate on a 28, 30, 35 day cycle. And if you're conditioned to think you have to be at this operational, superwoman, doing everything for everybody, productive, high energy, happy all the time, and all of a sudden you have three days before your period and you don't feel like doing everything for everybody, or running a marathon, and all you kind of want to do is go inward and take some time, and you don't understand what's happening in your body, you think, "I'm a failure. Again, this is another example of how my body is broken."

Peta Wright: And you don't understand then the nuances of how other things in your body like stress and inflammation can then be super imposed on top of your hormonal fluctuations and modify things even further. And so you're completely disempowered, you think you're a failure because the whole society is not set up for women who have, it's called an ultradian rhythm, which is a hormonal rhythm that is not 24 hours, it's not set up for that. And when I talk to my patients about this, or women about this, they say, "Oh, that's very well and good that... Well in a perfect world maybe you could alter what you do to your cycle, but we can't because it's the world."

And I'm like, "But this is my dream." Women are 50% of the population, well, why can't we alter it? Why can't we say, "Actually this is our hormonal cycle and it's different to men." And then if we start using language, if we start saying to other women, "Hey, what day are you on, and what do you need today?" As opposed to expecting them to operate on the same level all the time, then I think the world would be a much better place, less women would suffer from the distress that they might have with mood symptoms and painful periods if they were actually allowed to live in alignment with their cycles and hormones rather than kind of against it all the time.

So they're many of the reasons why I think that women's health is in the position it's in. Also the link between modern living and our hormonal cycles because as I said before, our hormones are affected by our underlying health so if we're pushing, pushing, pushing, not sleeping, really stressed out, overexercising, exposed to endocrine disrupting chemicals, they're all going to affect our underlying hormonal cycles. So having an understanding of that really, really helps. Sorry, I think I just rambled on.

Megan Walker: Yeah, absolutely. No, that's amazing. I was just thinking just even the simple act of where you can look at your diary and going well, "High stress things could go in at this time of the month." Or moving things around when am I most creative, and more reflective, and even those little changes could be empowering.

Peta Wright: But it is incredibly empowering. And I have women who do come. And there's a spectrum, obviously, there are some women who need medication and hormonal treatments, and there are other women who might come really feeling really down and really anxious in those days before their period, and then when I explain to them all of this and then that they can have the power to modify things... I mean, I saw someone recently who came back three months later and just said, just understanding that giving me the communication and the language to talk with her team at work and saying, "Hey, I'm day 27, I just need a little bit of space." Or, "I'm going to come in at 10:00, come in a bit later." Completely changed her symptoms without having to do anything else.

So I think that the acknowledgement that our bodies are unique and different, but that doesn't make them less is incredibly empowering. And that's the work that I'm really interested in doing now. It's about hopefully I'll be out of a job one day, and have no patients because I'm hoping that women can have all of this knowledge and be empowered and feel connected to themselves and that kind of inner wisdom that we've forgotten.

Megan Walker: Amazing. And I wanted to ask you about if you've had any pushback from the medical community, but after hearing your story and how valid it is, I almost don't care.

Peta Wright: That's where I'm at.

Megan Walker: And that's a far better position to be, but let's touch on it just ever so slightly because I know people listening will say, "Oh, that takes huge courage." Let's talk about the courage a bit more than the holding back part. Talk about the courage to go, "Yeah, I'm actually going to do what I believe is the whole picture, not just one component."

Peta Wright: Yeah. It did take courage because I did spend a lot of years trying to change it from the inside of the system, both in a public hospital where I worked, and also because I was seeing so many young women presenting with pain and complex issues, and they needed multidisciplinary care with physios, and dieticians, and psychologists, and that was just... It's very hard to change things in the public system. And there's a perception that there's not the money, but they'll fund an operation, which is going to not really be that helpful. So that was a bit like banging my head against a brick wall for a number of years.

And also I think when you realise that you're kind of... Is it a thing that... I did feel a bit like... So I gave up my public appointment because I felt I just wasn't getting anywhere, and I was feeling so frustrated, and I felt really a bit like I'd failed, but then I thought to myself, "Well, I know that there are other really great people who will do better at changing things from the inside and maybe my job, or my role, what I meant to do is to be in a freer place so that I can make the changes that I'm unhindered and I can make some changes that I think will... I'll be able to make faster." So I've made my peace with that.

The courage to do it, it just became something that I didn't have a choice, if that makes any sense. I just didn't feel I had any other choice. I knew that if I continued to practice medicine, like I'd been taught, which it's in a very patriarchal model really, I would give up, I couldn't do it. And so I didn't have a choice but to do this really. And yeah, so here I am. So I don't know how it will go, it's a very different model, but I really feel I've got to try. And I think that it will be a really great space for women.

And I went and saw a GP practice the other day, some of the members of my team and I, and I could see these GPs were also going through this sort of awakening of... Like seeing all of the connections between mind, body, spirit, life, that all impact a physical condition or a physical symptom, and they were seeing how addressing those things actually creates a much better outcome for the patient. And they were just hungry for knowledge and changing things, and that really encouraged me as well because I think the thing about the courage thing is that, I don't know, as women, we tend to do things differently to that sort of patriarchal model that we've been under, and I think it's all about connection and sharing knowledge and sharing... Not having power over a client or a patient, but empowering the patient or the client, and then empowering each other up by sharing all the knowledge that we have. And I think that women are in a really special place right now that we can do that. And I think that's what I'm very, very excited about with my new practice …

Megan Walker: Is women will have a voice.

Peta Wright: Making those connections with community. Yeah, and creating a community so that we don't have to do it the same way as we've always done it because I think that it hasn't worked.

Megan Walker: So people listening are going to be dying to hear now about what's at Vera, where will it be, what will be there? And then, so as we start to wrap up, let's talk about Vera and your movement, how that will transpire through the beautiful work at Vera. And then your advice for other clinicians and therapists listening who are feeling like they're being called to a similar movement. So if you want to talk about that first, tell us all about Vera, what's going to happen there?

Peta Wright: Okay. So Vera is a women's wellness clinic center that is in the Samford Valley, so about 35, 40 minutes from the center of Brisbane, so it's on the north side, it's in the Samford valley so on one side of the clinic is a beautiful mountain range, it's Mount Samson, there's a gorgeous protected hoop pine forest on one side, there's an enormous 300 year old fig tree that's just pure magic on the other side. And it will have me, two other gynecologists, I like to say where heart-centered practitioners and people have told me not to use that word because it's too woo-woo, but I don't care. I think that that describes what we're trying to do.

Megan Walker: Yes.

Peta Wright: Two other beautiful women, Thea Bowler, and Alice Whittaker, who are amazing gynecologists as well. And then two amazing physiotherapists, two dieticians, a health coach, an acupuncturist, and I feel I'm just going to run out of rooms because I keep getting more and more people who I think would be ideal for the team. And in time, a workshop space, yoga space, and I'd love to be doing educational stuff for practitioners, and also where we all share knowledge, and also run workshops to help empower young women, women going through all different things. So pain workshops, and hormonal mood stuff, and menopause, and perimenopause, because that's an area that women are often confused about and feel unsupported with. And it is a place that also it's away from the city because, A, I live out here and I love it, two, it is... one of the things I touched on a little bit is that disconnect between understanding that we have a natural rhythm, we are part of nature, and that disconnect from nature.

So it's all go, go, go, where our circadian rhythms and a messed up because we're working until late, watching TV late, we're stressed to the eyeballs. This is providing women an opportunity for them to be able to say, "I need to take half a day off, I have to prioritise myself." Or a full day, go crazy, take a full day off.”

And, yeah, come for your medical appointment, and then spend some time in the garden that I've been planting, sit down to the big fig tree, go for a walk, you can see multiple practitioners at once, and just take some time for themselves. Because I think as well, one of the themes that I see day in and day out in my practice with women is that women put everybody else first and themselves in the bottom of their list. And we just don't need anymore frazzled, disconnected women. I think women are amazing, and I just feel if they were connected to their inner wisdom themselves then the connections and the impact they could have in the world would just be so much greater. So it's just not selfish to put yourself first, that's a big thing that I want to help women to understand as well. So that's, Vera, it'll be beautiful.

Megan Walker: So gorgeous. Just when you were talking, then I thought waking up in the morning, dog gets fed first, school lunches get done, breakfast gets done, who eats last? It's Mum?

Peta Wright: I know. Exactly. And probably standing up while you're unpacking the dishwasher.

Megan Walker: Yeah.

Peta Wright: Exactly.

Megan Walker: So others who are thinking, "Wow, I would love to have a movement like this." What advice would you say to other people, other practitioners and therapists who feel that they're called to a bigger purpose with their practitioner journey?

Peta Wright: I mean, look around and reach out to other people who are doing the same thing, connect. I mean, I would love to be involved in a community of like-minded practitioners. I would love to see if we can make some change even, and this isn't completely my forte, but hopefully if we're connected to each other and we all come together with all of our different skillsets and we understand that this whole person approach is what's needed for real change and real healing, then there'll be people here with the skillsets to lobby the government, to change the way we fund healthcare, to make health care more about prevention, empowerment, education, rather than, "Let's catch the person at the bottom of the cliff when they've got their chronic disease." Or re-traumatising people through healthcare. We have the real chance to make change if we all come together.

So I think if you're feeling the pull to become more heart-centered, to take that broader approach, just look around, connect to other people, and do it because I just think... As well as from a point of view of a practitioner who doesn't do it, they'll burn out, they'll burn out and they will find themselves just unable to cope, I think, if they just continue on. I think that's what would have happened to me. If I hadn't said, "I need to change the way I practice and recognise that..."

And I think the other thing is to recognise that the softer skills, if you're a woman and you're listening to this, the softer skills of listening and holding space, they're actually incredibly important skills. And for a very, very long time, I used to think, thinking about someone who was a mentor of mine who, say, would be a really amazing surgeon, and wasn't maybe particularly great with the softer skills. And I would really downplay those skills in myself and think, "Oh, well, that's unimportant." But it's not and it's an incredible part of the healing journey for people. And I think if that's you, you should feel really proud of the space that you hold for patients and humans because that's... I think that the benefit that that can have on people getting better and healing, it's immeasurable, it's hard to test and measure in a randomised control trial, but it's extremely valid and important and you shouldn't sell your skills short. So I would just keep making connections and follow your heart.

Megan Walker: Beautiful. Peta, how can people find out more and what makes your soul sing?

Peta Wright: What makes my soul sing is being out here, having my hands in the dirt, gardening and spending time ... Yeah, spending time in nature makes my soul sing. Going for a walk or a run and seeing the ways that seasons change things and the different blossoms on the trees, that's what absolutely makes my soul sing, being in nature. And I think we need to do more of it, that's healing in itself.

Megan Walker: Tree therapy.

Peta Wright: Yes, absolutely. Yeah, forest bathing, "I prescribed five minutes of forest bathing now. It’d definitely be that.

Megan Walker: I love it. Barefoot grass walking, all of those gorgeous things.

Peta Wright: Yes. Lying under a tree. Yep.

Megan Walker: And what's your new web address? 

Peta Wright: And our Instagram is verawomenswellness as well.

Megan Walker: Beautiful. Well, as someone who you've had an amazing, complete change in my life, thank you for the work that you've done for me, for the insights that you've given to everyone on this recording, and just the beautiful vision that you have and what you're doing with Vera. So lovely to know you, and thanks so much for your time today, Peta.

Peta Wright: Thank you, Megan. Thanks so much for having me.

Megan Walker: See you soon.

Peta Wright: Bye-bye. 



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