Breathe easy

Experience as a clinical nurse consultant in respiratory medicine inspired Vanessa McDonald to undertake a PhD (Medicine) in an effort to better support and improve the quality of life of patients with chronic lung disease.

Long committed to person-centred care, Professor McDonald identified problems with the methods used to manage people with severe asthma, leading to a lack of personalised treatment. This realisation has driven her research which has focused on engineering a shift in the way patients with long-term respiratory problems are diagnosed and treated. Her ultimate goal is to implement individualised, targeted treatment programs into the healthcare system.


  1. What Catholic school/s did you attend?


  • St Mary’s Infants School, Greta
  • St Brigid’s Primary School, Branxton
  • St Joseph’s College, Lochinvar


  1. Do you know why your parents chose a Catholic education for you?


My mum was educated in the Catholic education system and has strong beliefs. It was important to her that we also received a Catholic education.


  1. You began your career as a clinical nurse. When did you realise you wanted to pursue a career in medical research?


When I began my career as a clinical nurse, I was very lucky to work with clinical academic leaders who taught me the importance of, and supported me in, the delivery and transfer of evidenced-based practice. Working clinically therefore enabled me to do practice-based research.  Seeing the benefits this brought to patient care and health outcomes motivated and inspired me to want to do more research. At the centre of my motivation is improving the quality of life of people with chronic lung disease.


  1. What drew you to respiratory research in particular?


My clinical area of expertise is respiratory disease. Daily I would work with people with respiratory diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cystic fibrosis. The impact that a chronic lung disease has on people’s lives can be very disabling. Breathing is vital for life and when you can’t breathe well, the impacts are enormous. When working with patients I would often question how we might be able to do things better, how we could reduce people’s symptoms, how we could improve the quality of lives of people affected by breathing problems. Clinical research in respiratory disease was a natural transition to enable these clinical questions to be answered and to find a better way.



  1. What developments are you most proud of from your research career?


My primary focus has always been on person-centred care. Placing the person with the disease at the centre of their care and working in partnership with the patient to improve outcomes. With this at the forefront of my research program I have been able to design and test new models of care for people with lung disease and deliver multidimensional personalised interventions. This has resulted in major improvements in quality of life and in other health outcomes.  The challenge now is to implement these new treatment programs into healthcare practice for all people with chronic lung disease.


  1. Asthma is a major health problem, especially in Australia. What is your ultimate goal for your research in chronic airway diseases and chronic diseases in general?


A major research finding over the past 15 years or so is that not all asthma is the same. The same applies to many chronic diseases.  People have different subtypes of asthma and there are many different disease characteristics that manifest in different individuals. This has led to the development of personalised management in chronic respiratory diseases, but there is still a long way to go.


I would like to see a paradigm shift in our approach to managing not only airway diseases, but chronic disease in general, with the implementation of personalised/precision medicine.  I want my research to inform a healthcare system where patients are managed in partnership with individualised and targeted approaches to improve outcomes.



  1. What adversities have you experienced in your career? Did your faith assist you in overcoming these challenges, if not what helped you to triumph?


We will all experience some adversity in different aspects of our lives. It is part of the process. I think the important thing is to deal with these and rise above them. In research, rejection and knock-backs are common in relation to funding, publication and convincing others of its importance. Resilience and tenacity are traits that are particularly important in research, and continuing to believe in yourself when it feels like no one else does.

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Brittany Gonzalez

Brittany Gonzalez is a Marketing and Communications Co-ordinator for Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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