Written by Roxanne

The Early Years

My passion for conservation, like many, has its roots in early childhood.  It was watching the well-known presenters like Steve Irwin and David Attenborough, but before Animal Planet was reality show-centric, there were others I enjoyed and learned from.  They were reptile enthusiast and photographer, Austin Stevens; biologist, Jeff Corwin; and zoologist, Nigel Marven.  I was also a frequent visitor of zoos, wildlife parks and museums.

I wasn’t a child of the outdoors who camped and trekked the rainforest of far north Queensland where I grew up.  In fact, I was seriously ill with a Chiari Malformation: a rare congenital defect of the skull compressing the cerebellum and brain stem into the spinal canal.  The statistics are unclear, but it typically occurs in 1/1000 births.

The condition restricts the flow of spinal fluid and impacts the automatic functions for life, such as breathing, temperature regulation, motor control and swallowing.  An excess of spinal fluid in the brain (Hydrocephalus), a tethered spinal cord and a spinal cord syrinx (cyst) also develops in patients.  Brain stem decompression, spinal cord and shunt insertion surgeries until the age of five prevented significant brain damage, severe disability and other life-threatening conditions.  After my last MRI at 11, I haven’t received specialist treatment as I simply had enough of it all, was stable and if anything, anymore procedures would’ve been counterproductive. 

What remains is the syrinx as it was too complex and risky to treat.  Because of that and other residual symptoms, I have a low fitness level and problems with balance and coordination traversing over loose rocks and steep rises. 

Engaging in environmental science and conservation through film, zoo visits and reading wildlife and palaeontology books helped me in these hard times and created a good knowledge base well before I was taught formally in senior high school and university. 

University and Professional Conservation

Studying environmental science at university and work experience in the sector brought the childhood dream into fruition.  And to my surprise, my interests in conservation are more general.  It started from a zoological leaning, but from studying extension subjects and working in the sector, I enjoy the social and community aspect of conservation and working with people.

I did my undergraduate degree at a regional university in north-east New South Wales, studying mostly online with practical classes and field camps.  Some of my favourite experiences were fauna surveys in Richmond Range National Park, an excursion through the national parks of south-east Qld and northern NSW and engaging in the discourse of natural resource issues and human impacts.  Most of all, it was enriching to be taught by those I looked up to and socialise with other like-minded students.

While studying I got straight into working in the conservation sector.  My first job at 19 was a Green Army Participant: one in a group of young adults working on conservation projects in a Government youth employment program.  We worked in local national parks and reserves controlling weeds and planting native seedlings with local Landcare groups.  I enjoyed the work (including the physical), the people and the application of my first year of study. 

After five months of working in the Green Army, I volunteered with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service for nearly four years.  My main role was data entry for their pest management activities, but as the rangers knew about my career goals, they would let me go out in the field with them.  I did flying-fox, vegetation and shorebird surveys, as well as experience different aspects of protected area management.  Like at university, the rangers were my core role models and friends.

I now work as a project officer with my local Landcare organisation.  Although early days and COVID-19 impacted normal operations for a time, it’s a great job after graduation.  I’ve written for funding applications, attended committee and inter-agency meetings, and seen conservation dogs at work for the first time.

The Challenges

Surgery attempted to reduce the impact of my Chiari but because of the physical limitations, it’s hard to find the right career path in conservation.  National park rangers and field officers require a high fitness level to work in very remote locations, fight bushfires and perform manual tasks.  Same goes for field ecologists and ecological restoration practitioners.  While I’ve managed myself as best as possible during university and working in the sector, it doesn’t mean I’ll independently fulfil some of the conventional internships and entry-level jobs in conservation.

Unlike other disabilities and health conditions, specific supports for mine in the workplace (in the field) are unclear.  Field sites differ and it isn’t always practical.  Therefore, I may decline in participating in an activity.  Then there’s the situation where it doesn’t impact my ability to work, like an office environment.  While open to this, I’d rather see practical outcomes in my work and be outdoors on occasion.  This fluidity of disabling factors is frustrating seeking help from disability employment services and articulating my situation to an employer. 

There’s also resistance and ambivalence on my part.  I’ve lived a mostly normal life since my early teens, where my health wasn’t an issue.  I did very well at school and university, learned to drive and joined the workforce.  Then there’s the consideration of the clinical aspects of my condition.  For a while, I resisted engaging a specialist as I don’t subscribe to the narrative of being unwell. Plus, it took me years to be comfortable with medical professionals. 

Commitment to Positive Actions

Physical & Mental Health

I haven’t seen a specialist doctor in over a decade as it was thought my Chiari would unlikely worsen and I’m mostly healthy.  However, there are still symptoms to manage if wanting to be in the field occasionally.  And something could happen later in life.  Despite any residual “white coat syndrome,” I’m at an age and education level where I’m thankful to my previous doctors, genuinely intrigued in the neuroscience and see the practicality in having an expert to consult with and learn from.  With some guidance, next year I’ll investigate a neurologist who could help me in adulthood. 

I’m also implementing things at a smaller scale, such as developing a fieldwork risk management strategy with a workplace consultant with a background in exercise physiology and occupational therapy.  Focusing on environments and tasks I struggle in we’ll design possible solutions in the field and exercises to improve physical health.

Long periods of reflection and conversations with loved ones also encouraged me to consider the psychological impact of my life experiences.  While my medical treatment was so long ago, it’s possible to say the experience, how my brain developed during/after surgery and the life I’ve lived has a role in how I think, feel and behave nowadays.  I’m working with someone to investigate these variables, learn to allay unhelpful thinking, manage my health and be more resilient across the board.

Education & Experience

Because my work at Landcare mostly is casual, there’s room in my life for exploring other things in the conservation field. After graduating from university, I studied a project management qualification at TAFE, where I got enthused by stakeholder engagement and human resources.  There’s also postgraduate study to consider; it’s just a matter of what stream of environmental science I want to learn more about.

I also intend to volunteer wherever possible.  Close to home in northern NSW, I preparing to next year join a large koala bushfire recovery project with an organisation lead by a university alumnus I admire. The aim is to try different things and meet different people.  If this feels right, I’ll stay the course as, from past experiences, valuable opportunities and relationships could result.

A Final Note

I understand chronic illness or disability is an intensely private issue for some as there is a fear of judgement or not being supported.  It’s something I’m still coming to grips with.  That said, how can people in your field help when you don’t say what’s difficult?  There are great, supportive people out there when given the chance. Plus, fortune favours the bold.  Continue to learn about your industry, try different interests and jobs, test your limits, and proactively approach organisations to connect with like-minded people. May this story provide consolation, optimism and options for those in conservation experiencing complex health conditions. 

Thank you to Ian and Warrick, my childhood neurologist and neurosurgeon who looked after me and my family all those years ago.  I wouldn’t have lived this amazing life without your help.