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Paralysis to walking: How a spinal cord injury transformed Dr Olivia Ong’s outlook

Spinal cord injury prompts Dr Olivia Ong to prioritise own wellbeing

Dr Olivia Ong was warned she may never walk again. Now she is leading the way for others to practice medicine from the heart.

Doctors and medical professionals are held in high esteem in our society, respected for their lifesaving knowledge and expertise. However, alongside this admiration often comes other, less constructive expectations.

Medical experts frequently feel pressure to be unfailingly capable, calm, and resilient in extremely high-pressure situations in their professional lives, while also remaining immune to human struggles like burnout or low self-esteem.

“Doctors unfortunately wear business as a badge of honour,” said Dr Olivia Lee Ong, a physician and CEO and founder of The Heart Centered Doctor.

For Dr Ong it took a traumatic injury, that shook her world and rendered her a paraplegic, to recognise the toxic hustle culture of the medical field and accept that she needed to take time out of her busy schedule to look after herself.

Her journey to rebuild her life involved not only intense physical rehabilitation and learning how to walk again but changing her deeply ingrained idea of what it meant to be a doctor.

Tired of seeing her colleagues persistently overworked, burnt out and exhausted, Dr Ong set out on a mission to support practitioners to practice medicine “from the heart”, and dispel the myth that doctors must forfeit their own wellbeing in the pursuit of healing others.

Dr Olivia Ong after accident walking
Dr Olivia Ong after accident

How a spinal cord injury changed Dr Ong’s world view

Prior to her accident, Dr Ong was working as a specialist in rehabilitation and pain management, rarely stopping to consider the impacts of her demanding role on her own health.

One day in 2008, Dr Ong was walking through the hospital car park on her way to a shift, when she was struck by a moving car at high speed.

The accident left her with a spinal cord injury so severe that her doctors warned her that she may never walk again.

Determined to fight these odds, Dr Ong set out on a long, arduous journey to reclaim her independence.

She travelled to San Diego in the United States in 2010 to undergo three years of “agonising” therapy at the Project Walk Centre for Spinal Cord Injury Recovery.

Through sheer determination and grit, Dr Ong returned home to Melbourne, with the hard-earned ability to walk functionally again, albeit with a limp and a mobility aid.

Following her rehabilitation, Dr Ong continued her studies and built herself a rewarding career as a dual-trained rehabilitation medicine and specialist pain medicine physician.

“I stepped up as a clinical leader at work using my compassionate leadership skills and became a mum to two beautiful children whom I adore. I had a very supportive husband, close family and friends,” she reflected.

On the outside, everything seemed perfect. However, Dr Ong had gained something else throughout her difficult recovery process that was just as transformative as her physical recovery – a new appreciation of the importance of self-compassion.

Her newfound ability to look inward and prioritise her own wellbeing meant that she could no longer ignore the obvious signs of burnout, brought on by the lingering effects of her injury, her demanding career, further studies, and the challenges of motherhood.

“I ignored the warning signs, feeling that burnout was a sign of vulnerability and weakness. I just kept pushing through,” she said, until eventually, she could run on adrenaline no longer, and abruptly hit a wall.

“I knew there had to be a way to build my career while growing my family and becoming the leader and mother I envisioned myself to be,” she said.

“I took the determination I had applied to learning how to walk again and applied it to transforming my life.”

Dr Olivia Ong

Rising from the ashes of burnout

Dr Ong’s epiphany was borne from the starkly contrasting experience of relearning to walk, a journey requiring immense patience, self-compassion, and commitment to making each move mindfully, with that of her day-to-day life as a doctor.

Prior to her accident, Dr Ong described her way of working as being on “autopilot”, running from task to task, patient to patient, never listening to her internal cues or reaching out for help when she needed it.

Her perfectionism, while in some ways helped her achieve such success, was now threatening her wellbeing and the sustainability of her career in medicine.

She knew she needed to take the lessons from her rehabilitation journey, in which she relied on support networks of people with shared experience, into her professional life where it could help not only herself, but her peers and colleagues.

“I wanted to rediscover the passion in my work, restore my mental and emotional wellbeing, and reconnect with my family, my inner self, and my identity beyond the physician,” she said.

“Not only was I not willing to live with fatigue and overwhelm, but I knew that if I could change, so could others.”

Mental health challenges like depression and burnout have long been more prevalent in the medical industry than in the general population.

The global COVID-19 crisis has heightened this to unprecedented levels, with fears of mass healthcare worker shortages in the future as a result.

Dr Ong’s experience inspired her to disrupt traditional ways of thinking in the medical industry, realising that pushing through with grit alone is not a sustainable solution for the countless nurses, doctors, carers and other professionals on the verge of complete burnout.

Dr Ong’s book, The Heart-Centredness of Medicine, now available for pre-order via her website, offers in-depth insights into Dr Ong’s personal journey, and how others in the field can be successful while honouring their humanity, embracing their emotions, and prioritising their personal wellbeing and relationships.

Dr Ong also offers professional coaching programs for the medical industry, focused on the importance of self-compassion and highlighting the dangers of a medical professional that has burnt out.

“They become emotionally exhausted, cynical and disconnected from themselves and others, and they will no longer be able to serve their patients, let alone their loved ones,” she said.

Dr Ong hopes this will lead to a world where doctors don’t feel that self-care a sign of weakness, but a powerful tool that enables them to be more successful, compassionate, and holistic doctors, protecting their own wellbeing and improving the care they give their patients as a result.

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon is a passionate writer, editor and community development professional. With over ten years’ experience in the disability, health and advocacy sectors, Emma is dedicated to creating work that highlights important social issues.