Meet the team – Bronwyn Sacks

Dr Bronwyn Sacks is Chief Medical Officer at Very Special Kids and Paediatric Palliative Care Specialist – Victorian Paediatric Palliative Care Program- based at the Royal Children’s Hospital and Monash Children’s Hospital.

Here she explains more about her role at Very Special Kids, how it fits within her other roles, and why she’s so passionate about paediatric palliative care.

How did you get involved with Very Special Kids?

I first became involved with Very Special Kids in 2002. I was a medical student, questioning whether medicine was the right future career for me, and I decided to take a year off university to pursue volunteer work and travel. I underwent training as a Very Special Kids family support volunteer and was subsequently assigned to support a 6 year old girl named Sophie, whose brother, Cameron was undergoing treatment for a brain tumour at the time. This experience gave me privileged insights into the experience of families and children who walk the terrifying and often lonely path of medical care for a life-threatening illness. It also cemented my commitment to completing my medical degree in 2005, and subsequently my paediatric palliative care specialist qualifications, which I completed in 2016.

What is the most rewarding thing about being a part of the organisation?

It has been an incredibly rewarding 18 years working with Very Special Kids. Over this time, I have been privileged to see first-hand perspectives of children, families, volunteers, family support practitioners, nurses, allied health staff, doctors, and management within the organisation. I have watched Very Special Kids grow and I have grown with it, both personally and professionally. In that time, I have transitioned from a family support volunteer, to a visiting medical officer at the hospice, to my current role as chief medical officer of Very Special Kids, whilst concurrently progressing my career as a paediatric palliative care specialist with the state-wide Victorian Paediatric Palliative Care Program based at RCH and Monash Children’s Hospital.

Is there much crossover with your role at Very Special Kids and The Royal Children’s Hospital?

I feel fortunate to work across multiple organisations, including Very Special Kids and RCH, which provide exemplary care for an under-represented group of children with palliative care needs. For my patients, who frequently transition between home, Very Special Kids and hospital, my roles at VSK and RCH certainly give me the unique opportunity to understand their experiences more deeply, and to promote holistic, streamlined, patient- and family-centred care across different health-care settings. By working collaboratively with a focus on the child and family at the centre, RCH and VSK have been able to deliver the most extraordinary care at a time when families often feel helpless or hopeless. An example of this is the transfer of a sick child from ICU at RCH to VSK, to receive end-of-life care outside the acute hospital environment. These experiences require mobilisation of ICU clinicians and specialised transfer vehicles to facilitate transfer from RCH to VSK (or home), in addition to specialist palliative care staff to receive care of the child and continue to provide end-of-life care. These experiences have shown me what is possible with tremendous teamwork, compassion and skill, and the lasting impact for families navigating the most difficult times.

What is your contribution to Very Special Kids? What is a typical day for you when you work for them?

There is no such thing as a typical day at Very Special Kids; every day is a bit different. As a visiting medical officer, I work with 3 other doctors who share the on-call roster and provide a week of around the clock medical consultation for children who are staying at the hospice. A typical week involves several visits to the hospice to review children who are there for respite, or multiple daily visits to those admitted for end-of-life care. In my role as Very Special Kids chief medical officer, I provide medical guidance on a variety of issues as they arise, most recently COVID-19. I support the client intake and eligibility process and am involved in clinical risk and governance activities.

Do you have a favourite memory?

I have so many fond memories of my time with Very Special Kids. Some of my favourite memories centre around Sophie, and the relationship I developed with her and her family as Cameron underwent treatment for his brain tumour. Cameron is now a healthy young man who has completed a double degree at university, and I continue to share a very close bond with the family. I have memories of teddy bear picnics and children’s tea parties in the magnificent VSK gardens, horses and celebrities visiting the hospice, music and art therapists bringing smiles to the children’s faces, and memories of the hospice bringing calm and unimaginable joy to families and children in their most painful hours, as they near the ends of their lives.

How important is an organisation like this to end of life care?

It goes without saying that the death of a child must surely be one of the most painful and unnatural experiences any family could endure. The loss of a child brings immeasurable grief, vulnerability, and fear. We know that offering choices for children and families in this context provides families with a sense of control at the time, and comfort into their bereavement. Whilst many families feel most safe at home, or in hospitals that have been like second homes over their children’s lives, Very Special Kids provides an alternative physical and emotional environment where they can simply “be parents and children” rather than “carers and patients”. The hospice is supported by the most passionate, skilled and kind group of volunteers, nurses, family support practitioners, carers, doctors, allied health, music and art therapists.