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Labour of love

Marge Overs
Med J Aust
Published online: 6 August 2012

Dr Michelle Ammerer is an interventional cardiologist and director of the largest coronary care unit in Western Australia, at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Perth. She is also in private practice at Western Cardiology, based at St John of God Hospital Subiaco. In 2004, Dr Ammerer completed a Fellowship in Interventional Cardiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, through the Harvard Medical School.

I knew I wanted to become a cardiologist early on in my training. I was born and raised in WA and did my undergraduate degree at the University of Western Australia. I did my intern, resident, registrar and basic physician training at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, and I was the first female trainee in cardiology at the hospital. I tried a mixture of rotations, but I always liked cardiology the best. The more cardiology I did, the more I loved it. Not many people would be so passionate about a career choice so early on, but it just clicked for me.

I’m the only female cardiologist in WA specialising in angioplasty, but I have never set out to be a trailblazer. My mother is a professional and my grandmother had two degrees. I’m from a family where everyone is treated equally. My sister and I were expected to get an education, to work and achieve the best we could for our ability. My mother has been very influential in making sure we can support ourselves, to be a contributor and to be an equal.

My mentors have had a big impact on my career. I have had such good mentors at Sir Charles Gairdner that I haven’t wanted to work anywhere else or in any other specialty. Dr Steve Gordon, who is now at St John of God, has been my mentor all my career, and he’s amazing. Dr Mark Hands and Dr Eric Whitford, who are colleagues at my practice and have been leading interventional cardiologists at Sir Charles Gairdner, have also been influential. They are all very skilled and have great personalities. Like many cardiologists, they all have a great sense of humour.

Mentoring young doctors is an important part of my work. I’ve done formal mentoring through a University of Western Australia program, but I find it works better informally with people who click with you and are inspired by what you’re doing. As director of the Coronary Care Unit, I oversee the wellbeing of the residents. I’m often the person they come to when they need to talk, and I do all their reports and references. People will ask me for advice years after leaving the hospital.

My career has always been driven by what I love. I love treating acutely unwell patients and dealing with medical emergencies. I’ve probably been better at that type of work than other areas of medicine. There is immediate gratification when a patient comes in having a heart attack and we do a primary angioplasty and save their life. I’d rather do what I love than work in a field with fewer hours and no on-call.

I’m drawn to the variety of cardiology. I’m a director of the WA branch of the Heart Foundation and I founded the Go Red for Women campaign about seven years ago. The campaign, which went national, aims to increase women’s awareness of the risk of heart disease. Few women know that heart disease is the number one killer of women — that women are four times more likely to die from heart disease than from breast cancer.

One of my career highlights was doing the Fellowship in Interventional Cardiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, US. It was an achievement just to be accepted into the Fellowship. I had to fly around the world for interviews. One guy who was meant to interview me at a conference in Washington DC stood me up three times. I went to his lecture to see what he looked like, followed him to his hotel, accosted him in the bar and said: “You are meant to be interviewing me. I’ve flown all the way from Australia”. I ended up working with him and six months after I started he told me, “I knew you had it in you then. I didn’t want some girl who might cry or get upset if things didn’t go well”.

The Fellowship was an incredible experience. I learnt so much through the sheer volume of cases and exposure to new techniques. It was also a funny year because I was doing the Fellowship with five men who all had wives and young children so they needed to get home on time. That was before I had children, and I was just there to work, so I always did the extra work and the longer hours.

Cardiology is constantly changing, due to the growing use of devices instead of open surgery and changes in medications, such as antiplatelet agents and anticoagulant drugs. There is always research to read, and disbelieve or believe. It’s a challenge to stay up to date, so it’s important to attend conferences and forums where new research is discussed.

My favourite part of interventional cardiology is also the most challenging. The patients are very sick, but I love rising to these challenges. I guess that’s part of my personality. I’m a stubborn person and passionate about what I do. I’m black and white in decision making, which is a good thing because there are no half-measures in interventional cardiology. I need to be able to think on my feet and make split-second decisions, sometimes in the middle of the night.

  • Marge Overs


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