Anne Cahill Lambert

Anne became a high profile health consumer advocate after becoming seriously ill in 2005.   She discovered that life on the receiving end of health care was onerous and more unpleasant than it should be.  She also discovered that life-saving support for some patients was extraordinarily costly, while the organ donation and transplant system was dysfunctional.   Anne’s activism and leadership is grounded in a strong belief that we should leave this earth a better place than when we arrived. 

Anne Cahill Lambert was born in Melbourne in 1955.  She was the second of identical twins, in a family of 6 children.   Her father, a public servant, was posted to Canberra in 1960 and that is where the family settled in 1962, apart from postings back to Melbourne and then to Perth.

Anne was educated at local Catholic schools, but finished her schooling when the family were in Perth. She was sent to the Fremantle Technical School to learn shorthand and typing. It wasn’t what she wanted to do, but ‘that was what Catholic girls from large families did in those days’ – and it did provide her with skills that have been useful all her life.

Back in Canberra she started her working life as a base grade typist, in the 4th division of the public service, but quickly moved to the lofty heights of Acting Steno Secretary Grade 1.  A senior public servant spotted Anne’s talents and, having worked as Personal Assistant to the Secretary of Administrative Services, she was asked to work as Personal Assistant to the Chair of the Jamieson Commission of Inquiry into the efficiency and administration of hospitals in 1979. Anne had already become interested in public administration, and in her new job became ‘mesmerised’ by hospital administration.  She went on to work in a number of Melbourne hospitals including the Mercy and the Royal Women’s.  It was at this time that she met and worked with a number of people who became important mentors and role models, who provided her with opportunities to use her organising and intellectual skills.

In 1982 while living in Melbourne, Anne enrolled as a part-time, external student for the Bachelor of Health Administration degree at the University of NSW – the only health management course in Australia at that time.   She went on to do a Master’s degree in Public Administration at the University of Canberra in 1995.

While working at the Royal Women’s, Anne met ‘this cute young man’ Rod who turned out to be the Deputy Medical Director of the hospital, and who became her husband. However, Anne is a Catholic, and the young man was divorced. They were not allowed to marry in the Catholic Church and Anne was warned that if she married Rod she should have nothing more to do with the Catholic Church.  They married in an Anglican church and now have a son – now a teenager. Anne continues to attend Catholic Church.

In 1991 Anne and her family moved to Shepparton where Rod was Medical Director.  She could not undertake paid employment during this time, but kept her hand in with voluntary work as Registrar of the College of Health Service Executives in Victoria.  Having worked so hard ‘ to get out of being  the pretty little assistant’ it was important to keep working so that she didn’t forget everything she had learned.

The family moved to Canberra in 1992 and Anne became involved in the formation of a new Association to represent women’s (and later children’s) hospitals.   She was appointed as part time Executive Officer in 1994, and in 1996 became the first CEO of the organisation.  It was a job that she loved.  She was highly respected by those who knew and worked with her, and she became a great champion of the work of women’s and children’s hospitals.

Anne became ill in 2005.   She developed a persistent and debilitating cough.   After visits to several specialists in Canberra and Sydney, and a lung biopsy involving a stint in the intensive care ward, her illness was diagnosed as fibrosing alveolitis – a rare, degenerative  lung disease which causes the alveoli in the lungs to become stiff and open to attack.

Anne became increasingly unwell; she was breathless and her lung capacity continued to decrease. Frequent visits to Sydney to consult with specialists were necessary.   During these visits she realised how poorly people were treated within the mainstream hospital system.   Most of her experience with hospitals was as an administrator within the women’s and children’s sector where efforts are made to ensure that the whole person is cared for, including being treated with dignity and respect.  She speaks about having to visit a clinic in Sydney for an 8 am appointment.  She left her home in Canberra at 5 am, arrived at the hospital in time, but had to wait until 3pm until she actually saw the doctor she had come to see.   During this time she was afraid to leave the waiting room for fear that she would lose her place in the queue.    That was the day that she realised how ill she was, and that she would not recover without a lung transplant.    The long journey back to Canberra that evening was a long and distressing one.

She was unable to continue working, and had to resign from the job she loved, and become a ‘patient’ – and not a very patient one she says.  She had to use her superannuation fund to pay for the oxygen on which she relied.  If she was to have any hope of a successful transplant she had to maintain a level of health and fitness and so struggled to exercise and maintain a reasonable body weight.   To do that, she needed the oxygen. However, it was becoming increasingly costly, and says that in one year she spent $30,000.

Although for many people oxygen is a life-saving commodity, it was not subsidised through Medicare, or through jurisdictional governments.  Anne could not see why this was so, when other forms of life-saving treatments such as dialysis were fully provided for, and decided to pursue this with her local government.  She realised that while she had a clear self-interest, many other people were in a similar situation to herself.  She started to lobby the ACT Government, and to raise the issue publicly.  In this interview she described how she contacted Chris Uhlmann, then a journalist with the local ABC radio station in response to an interview he had done with a representative of the  AMA who had been waxing lyrical about the benefits of a combined public/private health system, and how patient’s costs were covered.   Chris was interested, and counselled Anne that she would get some strong responses, not all of them sympathetic, if she raised the issue publicly.   She went ahead and did an interview.   Chris also took Anne with him to a National Press Club lunch where the head of Medibank Private was addressing the media.   Chris raised the issue of oxygen supply – using Anne as ‘Exhibit A’.

The issue became a national one, and before long Anne found herself lobbying federal politicians; there was national media coverage, an interview on the ABC’s Health Report.  She became known as The Oxygen Woman.   Despite considerable difficulties, Anne succeeded in persuading the ACT Government to subsidise oxygen for its citizens – the first jurisdiction to do so.

She then turned her attention to the organ transplant scheme which she found to be dysfunctional. It had initially developed as a highly technical area and grown in an ad hoc way.  In the ACT where she lived, Anne discovered that the only staff member devoted to the organ donor scheme was an intensive care nurse who, as well as being on call 24 hours a day, was also expected to fundraise for the scheme.  Few organs were actually being donated, and little effort was given to raising the rate of donation.    Anne looked at the situation in countries where donation rates were much higher, and realised there were better ways of doing things.  She got involved with a group called Gift of Life, and eventually became its President.

By this time, Kevin Rudd was Australia’s Prime Minister – himself the recipient of a transplanted heart valve.   He wanted to improve our donor and transplant system, and authorised the injection of funds into it.   A National Organ Donation and Transplantation Authority was established, and Anne was appointed to its governing Council to represent the interests of consumers.

As a consumer representative  Anne encounters  attitudes that stereotype her as a ‘ only  a consumer’ – allowing other members of the committee not to recognise and respect the wide range of skills and experience that she brings from her working life as well as her analysis of her experiences of trying to get satisfactory care and information from the health system.   She speaks about being patronised by attitudes that assume she knows nothing about how the system operates.

However, Anne is not to be deterred, and speaks of the liberating experience of allowing herself to be ‘as rude to the Chairperson as he is to me’.   But, she recognises that her experience as a consumer allows her to bring a practical approach to committee work – she can talk about how it is no fun sitting and waiting in a clinic; its no fun watching people die because the process needs to change.  She also believes that while there is a certain amount of self interest in her advocacy, she has a responsibility  to use her ‘health management brain’  to help make the system better for others.   . She likens being a consumer representative to being an active feminist in the 1970s and 80s – just as she sat on committees saying ‘What about women?’, she now sits on committees saying ‘And what about consumers?’ .  It is hard encountering negative attitudes, and says that sometimes, it is so hard she comes home and cries – but it does not stop her doing it.

Anne does not see herself as a leader in the field – she says that others have worked much longer and harder in the space than she is. She is modest about her achievements and says that she will feel she has achieved something when she no longer has to advocate for good consumer care, and for needs of minority groups.

Her advice to other women taking up this sort of role is that we should never forget the hard work of our foremothers.   ‘They stuck at it and we should as well.   We are on this earth to make it a better place, and we should leave it in a better state than when we arrived.’

Profile by Kate Moore

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