Critical care paediatrician and global public health expert
Annie Sparrow’s passion has taken her from Perth to the frontline of the Syrian crisis. Today, she’s pursuing the impossible by providing a voice for those who cannot speak.
Do what’s right, no matter what. This is the attitude that has guided Dr Annie Sparrow throughout her pursuit of the impossible - from providing emergency care in war zones, to exposing misconduct of international organisations, to raising difficult issues at the World Economic Forum. However, this attitude is more than just good morals. It’s a commitment to do whatever it takes, whether that is years of academic study or gruelling fieldwork, and it’s something Annie developed during her studies at UWA.
“UWA gave me a kind of grit - an ability to bash on regardless. In professional life this means the ability to stop complaining, get on with it and get things done.”
In 1994, Annie graduated from UWA with a Bachelor of Medicine, a Bachelor of Surgery and a dream to become a paediatrician. After completing her internship in WA, she moved to London to study paediatrics and start her career, which she found to be easier than expected. “I didn’t realise it at the time, but the quality of the teaching at UWA is superb, which means I was very well prepared. When I moved to Britain, it was easy to find a position as Australian doctors are always in demand. It seems our excellent reputation precedes us.” After gaining several years of paediatric experience in London, Annie returned to Perth to work in intensive care at Princess Margaret Hospital for Children.
From Perth, she volunteered to work at Woomera immigration detention centre where her commitment to do what is right was put to the test. After three stints at Woomera, Annie witnessed what she describes as extreme human rights abuse. Despite the risks involved, Annie and fellow physician Paul Carroll – another UWA graduate – knew they had to alert the Australian media to the horrors taking place. Their criticisms soon made international headlines and it was at this moment that Annie heard her new calling, “I wanted to learn how to use my voice as a doctor. I’d reached a point where refugee rights and public health were more important than a career in intensive care.”
With a newfound passion for public health, Annie knew she would need to further her education if she was going make a difference to the lives of refugees. Following the advice of her long-time mentor Fiona Stanley, she enrolled and completed a Master’s Degree in Public Health at Harvard School of Public Health.
Now with a medicine and public health degree under her belt, Annie’s career extended worldwide; travelling to Darfur to research the consequences of rape as a weapon of war and monitor child rights, heading up UNICEF’s malaria program in Somalia, and most recently, working on the borders of Syria training doctors in paediatric intensive care, siege medicine and the treatment of infectious diseases and malnutrition.She is simultaneously documenting the human rights violations and war-crimes of the Syrian government including targeting of doctors, use of chemical weapons, besiegement of civilians and the destruction of schools and hospitals.
Finding her voice
As a practicing doctor in areas of crisis, Annie discovered she was in a position to speak out for those who couldn’t speak for themselves. Along with providing medical care to those in suffering, Annie became their public advocate through journalism. Her research featured in the ‘Smallest Witnesses: The Crisis in Darfur Through Children's Eyes’, a ground-breaking documentary on the children of Darfur and their accounts of living in the midst of genocide.
She has also written numerous articles on public health for the much-respected New York Review of Books. Her article exposing the misconduct and neglect that led to Syria’s polio epidemic caught worldwide attention, including that of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation who donated four million dollars to help the Syrian humanitarian effort and put an end to the epidemic.Despite the impact of her articles, Annie says she never intended to become a writer. Her journalistic prowess is another skill she attributes to her UWA studies. “We were taught how to write incredibly well, which is something I took for granted until I had to pass the standards of the editor of The New York Review of Books, the holy grail of rigor and quality writing.”
A constant pursuit
So what is Annie doing now? There is no single answer. Her official title is Critical Care Paediatrician and Assistant Professor and Deputy Director of the Human Rights Program at the Arnold Institute of Global Health. This means she teaches medical students how to be practitioners in war zones, provides advice to senior UN & WHO policy-makers, writes investigative articles, is a specialist in the Syria public health catastrophe, and is a general advocate for Syrians.
While Annie has achieved an incredible amount, her pursuit of the impossible is far from over. “My constant aim is to put the human face back on those labelled as refugees. I want to engage those around me to see refugees as human beings who want the same basic human rights we Australians have – the right to education, to vote, to freedom of speech.”
“Some of things my professors have taught me have stayed with me through all of my professional life. “No cough, no measles” is a memory aid I learnt at UWA medical school and is something I still use today.”
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