All aboard HMAS Resilience

by Angie Trivisonno

Ship docked in harbour

Positivity in the face of danger and destruction is something Rear Admiral (RADM) of the Royal Australian Navy, Sarah Sharkey exudes in bucket loads.

While the devastating 2019-20 Australian bushfires, and the rampant COVID-19 global health crisis have affected many people, RADM Sharkey refuses to let these rare events cast a long shadow on our country’s future.

“I’m sincerely inspired by the optimism and goodwill of people,” RADM Sharkey says humbly.

“I’ve heard stories of people excited about the freedom of starting over again after losing homes and livelihoods, and others looking at new and innovative ways to live and work in the face of massive restrictions.

“I love the fact that people don’t stand still, and that during a crisis great ideas and amazing collaborations emerge,” she says.

In December last year, RADM Sharkey took control of the Defence Department’s Joint Health Command.

“I’m also the Surgeon General of the Australian Defence Force (ADF),” RADM Sharkey explains.

“I’m responsible for the delivery of health care to our ADF members in Australia, and I’m also the technical authority for the ADF’s health effect more broadly.

“My work is about ensuring our uniformed Defence members receive the highest quality health care, and that Australia’s defence capability is protected from a health perspective.

“This is important for our security, the protection of our national interests, and the safety of the ADF’s most important assets – our people,” RADM Sharkey says proudly.

Within a month of starting her new position, RADM Sharkey was thrust into planning and delivering the ADF’s health support response to the Australian bushfires. This was immediately followed by planning and responding to the COVID-19 health crisis.

“These two extraordinary events demanded that Defence health services, in a very short period of time, reprioritise, reshape and collaborate in ways that it hadn’t done before,” RADM Sharkey reveals.

“I’ve been enormously proud of the ways in which our teams
have pulled together and responded to these unimaginable circumstances.

“I’ve never consciously drawn on resilience to pursue a specific goal, but I think it has absolutely helped me endure and persevere through these challenging times,” RADM Sharkey explains.

Unprecedented bushfires and global public health emergencies aren’t the only difficulties that RADM Sharkey has had to battle.

“Some of the hardest periods have been implementing reforms in the way we deliver health services,” RADM Sharkey admits.

“Health practitioners are by nature passionate advocates for their patients and professions.

“And, health care reforms are very good at polarising parts of our health system,” RADM Sharkey says.

Lady with mask on
Bush fires
Bush fires
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Still, RADM Sharkey describes being a naval medical officer as a real privilege.

“When deployed, we work and live with the same people who we provide health care to, and have enormous insights into their professional and personal lives,” she says.

“Being a medical officer in any Australian service is a fabulous opportunity to develop clinical and leadership skills. For example, during deployment you have to rely more on clinical assessment and judgement, rather than diagnostic supports like pathology, because they aren’t as readily available as in civilian settings.”

The Navy has taken RADM Sharkey on numerous exciting adventures since she graduated from The University of Queensland’s (UQ) School of Medicine in the early 1990s.

“To be frank, I did medicine because it was the hardest course to get into. I thought that if I started there and didn’t like it, then I could transfer to something else easier,” RADM Sharkey says smiling.

“Fortunately, I loved the UQ medicine degree,” she says.


“I’ve had so many memorable moments, but the best would have to be working in Submarine and Diving Medicine. Delivering health care in those environments has given me some of the most exciting times of my clinical career.

Working with small teams in recompression chambers and submarines, on diving platforms and rescue ships, and in remote places with limited resources, has presented me with some very unique and challenging moments,” RADM Sharkey recalls.

RADM Sharkey
Mayne Medical Building
Woman working on submarine
Chamber in submarine
View from submarine
Below the ocean
View from submarine
Below the ocean

And yet, it’s not the Navy that RADM Sharkey lists as her greatest achievement in life. No, it’s something much closer to heart than responding to an exciting call of service.

“Without a doubt, my two biggest achievements in life are being married to an amazing man, and being a mother to my four amazing children,” RADM Sharkey says warmly.

So, as COVID-19 restricts our freedom and togetherness, and future bushfire seasons torment, it’s with optimism and goodwill that life marches on to ensure resilience remains in Australia, this place we call home.

Australian flag on navy ship

This story is featured in the Winter 2020 edition of UQmedicine Magazine. View the latest edition here. Or to listen, watch, or read more stories from UQ’s Faculty of Medicine, visit our blog, MayneStream.