An anaesthetist’s RENDITION

by Angie Trivisonno

Violin on sheet music

Like a captivating symphony, Dr Sheena Burnell has composed her life with splendid rigour, elegant grace, sumptuous adventure and a spirited heart that has danced between lofty highs and deep personal lows.

A virtuoso in disguise, this UQ graduate and anaesthetist has explored all aspects of the human condition while removing pain from others and temporarily transporting them into the realms of a parallel world.

“I was born in Melbourne, but grew up in Brisbane,” Dr Burnell recalls.

“As a child, I was intrigued by everything from ballet and music to science, and from the age of seven or eight years old I just knew I wanted to be a doctor.

“I was always drawn to literature and history, and to smart, independent women like Amelia Earhart and Marie Curie, who forged successful careers in male-dominated areas.

“My grandfather was a Melbourne writer with numerous friends in the pre-World War II art world, and my brother is a professional musician with one of Australia’s best-known symphony orchestras,” Dr Burnell reveals.

“I grew up surrounded by books, music and art, and had regular family discussions on subjects like politics, social issues and whatever was going on in the world. And it was always expected that I would have something interesting to say on each subject.

“I could read whatever I wanted from my mother’s considerable library and ended up reading extremely widely and developing an enduring love for literature.

“We had many artist and musician friends, which enabled me to observe and appreciate people from all sorts of backgrounds,” Dr Burnell recounts.

“In retrospect, I guess you could say my family was a little eccentric with no shortage of big personalities.

“Still, I thank my mother and grandfather for their deeply-ingrained work ethic and sense of social justice because it has helped me immensely as a doctor,” Dr Burnell says appreciatively.

In gracious reciprocation, Dr Burnell has herself helped others by generously supporting UQ’s Centre for Excellence & Innovation in Anaesthesia.

In gracious reciprocation, Dr Burnell has herself helped others by generously supporting UQ’s Centre for Excellence & Innovation in Anaesthesia.

In 2008, Dr Burnell moved to China where she stayed for 7 years.

“I’ve always had a long fascination with Chinese culture, and after a very satisfying career in Australia, I thought I’d expand my horizons, even though I didn’t know anyone in China at the time,” Dr Burnell explains.

“I accepted a position in a Shanghai cosmetic surgery clinic, but unfortunately it turned out to be very different from the job advertisement that I replied to, and I ended up working as an over-qualified ward hostess.

“From there, things went from bad to worse, and I worked in a variety of ‘interesting jobs’, including as brand ambassador for a large Australian wine company and as a consultant in the Chinese senior living industry.

“After that, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to leave China immediately so that I could return to Brisbane for treatment. This was really hard after being out of Australia for so many years.

“I had to quickly find somewhere to live and figure out how I was going to support myself while undergoing 12 months of treatment, which included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation,” Dr Burnell explains.

At the end of that exhausting experience, Dr Burnell was left with outdated anaesthesia skills and needed to re-train if she wanted to work again.

“I feel very fortunate that I was able to do my medical degree in such a highly regarded institution as UQ, and have a career that has given me life-long enjoyment, even though being an anaesthetist is not terribly glamorous!” Dr Burnell says.

“You need a hairstyle that can survive theatre caps, clothes that can be quickly removed – preferably with front fastenings in case you need to visit several hospitals in one day, and the theatre masks remove most of your makeup.”

Fortunately, Dr Burnell has avenues outside the operating theatre that can satisfy her love for beauty as well as music and words.

“I’ve written several scholarly articles on Qing Dynasty textiles and dress accessories, trade publication articles for the wine industry in China, and magazine articles on cosmetic medicine, anti-ageing, Shanghai’s Fashion Week, and the Shanghai International Arts Festival…to name a few.

“I’m also Secretary of the Wagner Society in Queensland, a supporter of Queensland Ballet, and I still travel to Cambodia for NGO projects and to China for occasional consulting work,” Dr Burnell explains.

But, as with every symphony, there must always be an awe-inspiring crescendo. In Dr Burnell’s case that was setting up a scholarship for young emerging artists at Brisbane’s Conservatorium of Music last year.

“I’d been thinking about doing it for a couple of years, and when it actually got off the ground and I saw our first student presented with her scholarship and how much it meant to her, it was a very happy moment for me.”

Dr Sheena Burnell

Dr Sheena Burnell

Dr Sheena Burnell

Conductor with baton in air
Strings in orchestra
Ballet dancer

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.