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Nailing the portfolio career

An interview with Emma Parry

Emma Parry is, to be frank, a bit of a badass. This was initially intended to be a career case-study, but it proved impossible to categorise someone that is a maternal Foetal Medicine subspecialist, businesswoman, leader, global health innovator, women’s advocate…! So, I present you this instead – an article which at its heart is a reminder that careers in medicine really do not have to be linear and that saying ‘yes’ more often leads to opportunities never previously imagined!

The backstory

Emma, like us, hails from the UK. Her move to Aotearoa was the result of an epiphany which came partway through Obstetric and Gynaecology training - while searching for a parking space. She explains, ‘one weekend, my ex-husband and I went for a mountain bike ride. It took us an hour just to find somewhere to leave the car. We thought, “what are we doing here? There are too many people!”. It was then we decided to emigrate. We had already spent time in New Zealand and just decided to go for it’.

Emma’s first destination in 1995 was Auckland, where she worked for a year as a research registrar. The call of the South Island mountains was too strong however, resulting in a four-year stint in Dunedin. Always passionate about academia, it was here Emma had her first formal teaching tole. ‘One of my senior professors went to Fiji for a year and they needed to cover his teaching. Everyone knew I wanted to be an academic, so they carved me out a role as a junior lecturer while I was working as a senior registrar. It was a baptism of fire – I basically had a whole course to organise – but I loved it’.

A burgeoning interest in complex and high-risk pregnancy drew Emma and her then family-of-three back to Auckland, where she completed her training and landed a job as a high-risk pregnancy specialist with a senior lecturer post at the University of Auckland. She explains the challenge of trying to make her way in a relatively new subspecialty - ‘doctors with more experience kept coming in from overseas and getting the clinics I wanted!’. After learning about a Maternal-Foetal Medicine (MFM) qualification that could give her the edge, she decided to go for it, despite being the first person in NZ to do so. This turned out to be a great decision; not only did she discover a previously unknown love of ultrasound, but it also led to her meeting Dr Phurb Dorji.

The power of a letter

Dr Dorji was an O+G specialist from Bhutan, sent by his government on an 18-month secondment to learn about complex pregnancy and ultrasound. Emma found a kindred spirit in Dorji - ‘we became good friends; he was such a lovely man’.

In 2004, while she was still working with Dorji, a unique opportunity presented itself in the form of a letter. This letter was from Emma’s uncle, who just happened to be a multi-millionaire. ‘He wanted one of his nieces or nephews, of which there are around 40, to participate in a project somewhere in the developing world. In return he would donate the equivalent of about half a million dollars. This was back in 2004, a lot of money! The one caveat was that the family member should live in the country for three months’. Despite these remarkable terms, the interest from Emma’s extended family was negligible. ‘We were all of an age with young families and mortgages’, she explains. The idea sat with Emma, however, and she eventually mused to Dorji that they could work on a project for Bhutan. He was enthusiastic so they, together with a Professor colleague and Emma’s husband, put their heads together and developed a proposal that focused primarily on education and capacity building, with the aim of maximising sustainability.

Receiving the green light from Emma’s uncle was only the beginning; Bhutan has strict criteria for foreign aid and development. Joining forces with UNICEF, Emma and her husband met her uncle in Bhutan for a week to negotiate the terms of the work. It took another year or so to carve out the three-month leave of absence needed to return to Bhutan to carry out the project. By this point, in 2006, Emma’s children were four and eight. She recalls, ‘we had an interesting range of responses about taking them to live in a developing country for three months – one of my friends said it was child abuse!’. Luckily, they all had ‘an incredible time and loved the experience’.

The project itself was a success. Emma attributes much of this to her partnership with Dr Dorji. ‘If you want to work in the developing world, the best approach is to work closely with a local organisation. I have seen it done so badly, where foreigners come in and think they know best. It should be a collaborative relationship, both learning from each other.

While in country Emma’s husband, an IT specialist, focused on building a perinatal database. Emma worked on standardising pathways and delivering clinical training; every sonographer in Bhutan had attended a 4-week course by the end of the three months. Money was also put into offshore training for local clinicians and provision of equipment. The foundation of the country’s perinatal service was firmly laid and with Dr Dorji ensuring the longevity of the work, Bhutan was one of only seven countries to achieve the Millennium Development Goal for maternal mortality reduction.

Emma has stayed in close contact over the years, returning to Bhutan a further three times, including a 2015 visit with her children to present at the inaugural International Conference of Bhutan. She reflects, ‘it is the thing in my career I am most proud of and Bhutan is a very special place for our whole family’.

Nailing the portfolio career

Emma’s time in Bhutan came at the end of a fellowship year in the UK to complete her MFM training. On return to New Zealand, she began to gravitate towards clinical leadership roles. This included become Clinical Director of both the MFM service in Auckland and a new national network. She explains, ‘over the next ten years, we went from one ultrasound machine and a bed in an assessment unit to two purpose build rooms, five midwives and a foetal therapy service. We can now do foetal surgery rather than send women to Australia which is fantastic’.

A ‘pivotal’ moment came when Emma was put forward for the inaugural Next Magazine Woman of the Year awards in 2010, for her work to improve access and quality of High-Risk Maternity Services for women in New Zealand. She won both her category and the overall prize. New Zealand’s first female Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley, heard about Emma due to her subsequent feature in Next Magazine and was impressed; she invited her to join New Zealand Global Women, a network of women in leadership roles. Emma was taken aback by the offer – ‘I got the email and thought it was a joke!’ – but took the opportunity, which turned out to be a great call. ‘I met a group of amazing women from such diverse backgrounds. It really opened my eyes to the world beyond medicine’. That broadening of horizons led to Emma foraying into business and is she now engaged in several start-up companies – ‘a steep learning curve; I have learned a lot about spreadsheets’. I ask about the reaction of her peers to these endeavours. She laughs, ‘a couple of people think I have sold my soul, but most people are supportive’.

One of these businesses is Life Stream, which sells plant-based supplements and products. Attempts to extend the business has led to multiple trips to China over the past 5 years. Ever enterprising, Emma has managed to combine those visits with providing education to midwives through a colleague with links to the Confederation of Midwives in China.

Somehow, Emma also found time to work part-time at a private radiology practice, ultimately sitting on the board and later holding the position of Chair. ‘The company had an annual turnover of $20 million and over 100 staff; it was a big role’. During that tenure, she guided the company through a successful merger and acquisition process.

It is clear from talking to Emma that she is very familiar with something I am only recently starting to accept – you are your own biggest advocate and supporter. Case in point – four years ago she asked if she could reduce her hours at Auckland Hospital to focus more on her business ventures. ‘I was met with a very strong no’, she laughs. Rather than simply accept her fate, she contacted the clinical director of another hospital who were open to bringing on a part-time MFM specialist and off she went.

Sharing her wisdom and experience is something Emma is passionate about. ’Earlier in my career, I didn’t feel I always got the support I needed. I think if I had had more confidence, I could have articulated myself better’. She is especially committed to advocating for women within the health sector and beyond, including mentoring roles with the brilliant New Zealand network Wahine Connect.

Final words of wisdom

For me, the way to go about your career is working out what you really like doing and then trying to mould things around that. And always be open to opportunities. I think a lot of medics get focused on a specific pathway – I know I did! I even had a book where I would tick off career checkpoints like exams. Then suddenly, I was a consultant, I had my family, a nice house and I thought, what now!

Now, every time I get an opportunity and it sounds exciting, I take it. Never say no to a meeting or a coffee; you don’t know where it will lead!

If you could go back to your medical school graduation day and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?

Take a chill pill. Don't think you've got this all sorted. Just see where it takes you.