August 2018

An earthy faith and strong love for social justice

Catholic Health Australia CEO Suzanne Greenwood didn’t set out to have a career in the Church or the health sector, but an earthy faith and a strong love for social justice, as well as some defining personal challenges along the way, brought her to the role and she couldn’t be happier.

BY Debra Vermeer

“Faith has been the foundation, the cornerstone around which everything else in my life circles, and with that, a love for social justice,” she says.

“So the driving force behind my commitment to the role at CHA is the vision that all Australians have access to good healthcare.

“It’s a dream come true for me to have a voice in that.”

Suzanne was born and raised in Brisbane, attending Queen of Apostles Primary School at Stafford, before moving on to St Benedict’s College, Wilston, a Good Samaritan school, and then finishing her high schooling at Mount Maria College, Mitchelton, where both the Good Sams and the Marist Brothers were present.

“Mum was a Catholic, so she raised my brother and I Catholic. Dad was an Anglican, but he became Catholic in about 2010,” she says.

“When it came to faith, Mum was one of those people who just sort of got on with it, so it was a normal part of life for us. We went to Mass mostly on a Saturday night at Queen of Apostles Parish. It was quite a social and community-minded parish, and I enjoyed it.”

Suzanne says she remembers her schooling fondly, especially her time spent with both the Good Samaritan Sisters and the Marist Brothers.

“It was at a time when there were still religious at the school, teaching and as principal. They were just a lovely presence there,” she says. “And I’m still in contact with some of them.”

After school, Suzanne undertook a Law Degree at the University of Queensland, becoming the first person in her family to go to university.

She completed her law articles at the leading Brisbane firm of Cannan & Peterson, and stayed on there for several years, a period she describes as “a great foundation”.

During this time, Suzanne won a Fellowship from the Australian Trade Commission and spent a year working in Taiwan from 1992-93.

“It was a fantastic opportunity,” she says. “I did two hours of language classes every day, before going into the law office, and can consequently speak very bad Chinese Mandarin. I was the only foreigner in the law firm, and it was good fun.”

Back home in Brisbane, Suzanne continued her law career in a couple of city firms, working mostly in property and on major infrastructure projects, roles she found “interesting and important” at the time, although with long hours and plenty of pressure.

After meeting and marrying her husband, Brendan, a corporate accountant, the couple continued living their busy executive lifestyle until a life-threatening experience when their daughter Portia was born brought everything into a new perspective and was the catalyst for some life-changing decisions.

“During my first pregnancy I had pre-eclampsia, with an abruption [where the placenta breaks away] at the end,” Suzanne says.

“It was a very bad situation and it’s all credit to the incredible medical professionals at the Mater Hospital in Brisbane that she and I are still alive.”

When she presented to the Mater Hospital, Suzanne was rushed into an emergency caesarean section, with doctors fearing that the baby had died and Suzanne’s own life was in danger.

“As they were wheeling me in, one of the midwives said to me and my husband, ‘Have you said your final goodbyes?’ So it was pretty serious.”

The fast-moving skill of the medical team meant that both mother and baby survived.

“Portia was born seven minutes after we walked in the door of the hospital and when you think of everything that had to be done by that team in that time, it’s incredible,” she says.

“And I had a kind of epiphany moment, a sudden understanding that what I had been doing wasn’t really that important, but what these people are doing is really important.

“I realised that in the lead-up to my daughter’s birth, I was working in a highly stressful environment with long hours and when you’re faced with this life and death situation you do think, ‘what’s all that about?’

“So, I gave up my job while on maternity leave.”

At the same time, in the weeks after Portia’s birth, Suzanne’s husband Brendan was diagnosed with clinical depression.

“So there I was with a four-week-old baby, realising my husband couldn’t work and couldn’t continue in this high-pressured job. It was a heavy time,” she says.

“But you know, that year of maternity leave, with a new baby and my husband unable to work ended up being a fantastic period.

“We did some travelling around Tasmania and around Melbourne. It was a lovely time as a family. In the end, it was a gift.”

After a year, with Brendan still not able to return to full-time work, Suzanne took a part-time job as a lawyer for Queensland Health, where she worked until the birth of her son Samuel, and again afterwards. She also completed a Master’s Degree in Law.

But with memories of the wonderful medical team at the Mater Hospital still fresh in her mind, she jumped at the opportunity to apply for a job as the first in-house legal counsel for St Vincent’s & Holy Spirit Health in Brisbane.

“It was the first chance to tie my faith more explicitly into my work,” she says. “I think I got that job because I presented to them as not just a lawyer, but someone who identified as a Catholic lawyer.”

Suzanne was enjoying her role until St Vincent’s Health Australia brought their 18 companies nationwide under a centralised umbrella and her position became redundant.

“Being made redundant was a really unsettling and shocking thing to go through,” she says. “But I’m glad I did go through it because in my career since then, I’ve had to make others redundant and it was good to have experienced it.”

As it turned out, Suzanne was only redundant for one day, seeing an advertisement for a legal job with the St Vincent de Paul Society on her first day of unemployment and applying for it.

She stayed there for 18 months, putting in place systems and procedures, before training up a younger solicitor for the job and moving on.

“I loved Vinnies,” she says. “I still do. I was the highest fundraising female for the CEO Sleepout in the ACT this year. I raised over $13, 000.”

Suzanne also served on several Church advisory committees in Brisbane and was a member of the Good Samaritan Foundation, the Board of the Brisbane Archdiocesan Development Fund, the Queensland Law Foundation, The Queensland Law Society and Epilepsy Queensland. She also chaired the Human Research Ethics Committee for St Vincent’s Hospital Brisbane, St Vincent’s Hospital Toowoomba and Holy Spirit Northside Private Hospital.

After Vinnies, Suzanne decided to move from the law into a chief executive officer position. Her first CEO role was with the Institute of Arbitrators and Mediators Australia, followed by her current role with Catholic Health Australia, which she describes as her “dream job”.

CHA is the largest non-government provider grouping of health, community and aged care services in Australia, representing not only the nation’s 80 Catholic hospitals, but also aged care facilities, palliative care services, home and community care services, respite services, and health and allied services in rural and remote Australia.

Suzanne says when she took on the role in 2014, she had two areas of personal priority – Indigenous health and clinical/medical research.

“One initiative we are really proud of with Indigenous health is that we have entered into a partnership with the Apunipima Cape York Health Council and through that partnership we have been able to introduce Catholic health systems to them,” she says.

“Apunipima and CHA have begun a journey of collaborating together towards achieving the goal of closing the substantial gaps in health outcomes between Aboriginal people in Cape York and other non-Indigenous Australians.

“In July 2016, CHA members visited the community of Aurukun and Napranum where Apunipima had recently opened new primary healthcare clinics, and this year members visited Kowanyama. We’ve also held workshops in Cairns and we’re looking at what more we can do to make a meaningful difference, this year with a focus on women’s health.”

On the medical research front, Suzanne sits on the Australian Government’s Clinical Trials Collaborative Forum and CHA has introduced an annual research symposium to share learnings from its members and their research institutes.

Current challenges for CHA include raising awareness and understanding of palliative care and questions around end of life care, including voluntary assisted dying, and the implications of that for Catholic health and aged care facilities.

The debate over private patients in public hospitals has also required a considered response, together with the question of how to balance the government’s “sinking lid” approach to funding with rising healthcare costs, particularly wages and new technologies.

Looking back, Suzanne says those “crucible moments” of her life, such as the birth of her daughter and her husband’s struggle with depression, have resulted in unforeseen blessings, including more time together as a family.

Last year Brendan ran from Sydney to Canberra raising funds to support the Black Dog Institute. This August he will be running from Canberra to Narrandera to raise awareness for suicide prevention through the OzHelp Foundation.

“So setbacks are not always a negative,” says Suzanne. “Me being the primary breadwinner has allowed him to work part-time and has freed him up to raise hope and awareness for other people living with mental illness, and that’s pretty inspiring to me.”

Debra Vermeer

Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both Catholic and mainstream media.

If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.