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In this podcast, Lauren shares her experience of life with cystic fibrosis. Although still young, she has had an amazing career progression from working in law, to film production, then a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) government role that took her overseas, to today as she starts her own business.

While she was working for DFAT, she got a posting to Port Vila in Vanuatu in the South Pacific, and she talks about the logistics, challenges and positives of her time living overseas with cystic fibrosis. She also discusses her views on natural therapies and what she finds complements her medical care to optimise her health and wellbeing.

Read a transcript of this podcast below:

Keegan: Hi and welcome to the CFSTRONG podcast. CFSTRONG covers the successes and challenges faced by those living with cystic fibrosis. You’ll hear real first-person stories, conversations with health professionals, friends and partners. Just a heads up, the guests in this episode may share their personal views about treatments and health management, but please remember, this is not medical advice and you should always follow the advice of your clinic team regarding your health. My name is Keegan Baca; I’m a broadcaster and a Cystic Fibrosis Community Care ambassador in Victoria.

In this episode, we’re talking with Lauren Woolcock. Despite living with CF, Lauren has had a very diverse career. She’s gone from working in law to working as a film producer to working for the federal government to now running her own business. In her government role she was posted overseas, and she talks about how she managed her health while abroad. While working in the South Pacific, she learned a lot about their way of life and how that can help your health, whether you have CF or not then she shares that with us as well. Lauren, welcome to the podcast. Why don’t you start by telling us a bit about yourself?

Lauren: Sure. So my name is Lauren, I grew up in Melbourne. I was diagnosed with CF when I was a newborn I was born in 1989 and was lucky enough to be born in July. And I think it was February that year that they started the testing for newborn babies here. So pretty much I think three weeks after I was born, I was diagnosed and my parents were informed. After, I had a pretty normal childhood. I didn’t really notice my cystic fibrosis or that much. I’m sure my parents did, but I didn’t. I just had a pretty normal upbringing, until I was about 18 when I had my first admission. But before that, I was just living a pretty normal life. And even afterwards, really, it’s been a pretty normal life for me. Probably a bit of luck and a few other things in there, we are doing at school, CF was in the background a little bit. It’s like live life.

Keegan: I suppose. Yeah, it’s interesting that it does affect everyone very differently. So you go through your teenage years with it not really bothering you too much, for sure. Probably as these days, it probably affected your parents quite a lot. It’s always terrible to find that out and to get that news when you were born. But for the most part, it didn’t really affect you a great deal. Obviously, I’m sure there were challenges, but it wasn’t always in the foreground for you.

Lauren: Yeah. And I think when you’re that age the challenges mainly lie on your family, particularly when you’re under adolescence. So when you’re doing their formative years of school, it was my parents’ responsibility to let the school know what was going on, how they could best support me, you just as a kid do it. But I don’t think I really noticed in the challenges that you face when you’re that old, it was obviously more once you get to 18 class that you get a bit more of an understanding of how you actually need to handle your own health and you don’t have your mum there beside you being like this is what we need to say. I was probably only 18 onwards that I suddenly went, Oh, I have a feeling I now need to handle somehow.”

Keegan: I’m interested because you just mentioned that you were 18 when you had your first admission. And so before that, were you connected with the cystic fibrosis community? Did you know other people or speak to other people that had CF? Because I know from my experience, a lot of people that I know who’ve gotten into that community, it was because they had admissions and were in and out of hospital as a child and they made friends with other people that had it. Did you have that same thing or not until later.

Lauren: Not really, to be honest. Whenever we were members of the CF Victoria, I think it was at that time and mainly to get newsletters and updated information and whatnot. But I mean, I was at the Royal children’s, which is a great hospital and really only went for checkups once every three months. And of course, they separate you a little bit from other people in the waiting area. So I didn’t meet another person with CF until I was at university. And I just happened to come across someone who did have CF. Before that, it was not really something I ever thought about. Also, I guess sometimes that connection with the community comes out of a need and I in the early years didn’t really feel the need until much later, I don’t think.

Keegan: So you’ve probably studied and you’ve gone on to have a few different vocations. I’m sure we can get quite into it, but in a nutshell, what’s your career look like so far?

Lauren: Yeah. So I went to university pretty much straight out of school. My first degree, I spent most of my time socializing. So didn’t do an awful lot with that I ended maybe one class a year to assign my name to the role that was about it. Don’t tell anyone. And that was a Bachelor of Arts. So with that even, I clearly had no idea what I really wanted to do. And I think that’s been consistent throughout my career, I’m the kind of person who jumps from thing to thing based on what I enjoy at the time, which serves me really well and actually serves my CF really well, I think.

So I started off working in a law firm and had big dreams of being a lawyer, similar to the TV show Suits, but found that was a little bit to the TV shows suits in the sense that it was a bit cutthroat and it just wasn’t for me.  But it was a great and really, really good experience. I did that for a little while and then decided that I wanted to do something creative. So I became a film producer. And my second degree was in film at the College of the Arts, which I absolutely loved. And I loved working with people and creating something from nothing. And then after that, I got a job with the Australian Government working for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. So I moved to Canberra to work on government policy and international policy. I did that for five years.

Keegan: Was there a connection there? So, was there a connection between the government work and the film? Seems like it’s a very different field to jump into? Was there was there a reason you made that link?

Lauren: There was nearly no connection at all. So I had applied for a graduate position with the Government at the end of my first degree, and there was a recruitment freeze at the time. So it took them two and a half years to get onto recruiting additional people. So it was just by chance that they called up at a point when I was looking for a change, I’d applied three years earlier or something ridiculous like that. Just seemed like a good opportunity and it’s very hard to say no, to a job like that. And also, I obviously wanted to do it, because I’d applied for it three years beforehand.

Keegan: So that job that you were doing there when you got obviously a massive career shift, but that led to a bit of travel. So you were doing a lot of I suppose foreign relations and that kind of thing, because you were having to travel and I find that pretty interesting how you managed having CF and travelling. So how much did you travel and what did that look like when you jumped into that job?

Lauren: I got a posting overseas in the Pacific Islands in Vanuatu. So I got the chance to live and work in Port Vila, the capital, which was fantastic. I did do a fair bit of travel just generally with the work. It was challenging. But the challenges were mainly conceptual challenges, not reality, if that makes sense. So it was more just having to have discussions with a very beauracratic organization about how an individual manages their own health because they have their own risk management things that they do. So it was more crossing the boundary between what the actual risks were and what the perceived risks are. And it’s very hard to say to sort of a really big organization like that, I know my own health, I know how to manage my own health and the risk is mine and I have mitigated it.

Keegan: When you talk about organizations for those kinds of jobs where you think of flexibility and agility like government workers, the least of those things, like working for the government, everything’s obviously, very policy-driven and framework based and that kind of thing. I presume there’s obvious there are a lot of larger organizations that have those similar attributes. So what did that conversation look like? What were the things you said, just for people out there who might be managing their own health, whether they have CF or not, but we’re going to try and work on managing their career in an organization that may be a large organization that may be balancing risk, and maybe going through all those policy motivations. For them not to that there’s individual people making the wrong decisions, I’m sure it’s all for the right reasons. But what were the things that you said to get them to be comfortable with that?

Lauren: Yeah, it took a little bit of time. I think it took time, and it was a lot of small steps. So when I started working there, there was sort of an assumption that I wouldn’t be able to travel overseas at all and I would be Canberra based for the duration of my career. I wasn’t super pleased with that. And my personality is when someone says, “No, you can’t,” I like to prove them wrong. And also, because I knew that I could, like all the challenges could be managed. So essentially, what I did was I had small conversations to begin with, with individuals who, I guess made decisions or could assist me. In particular, it was a conversation about what the actual risks were. I also advise people to stop reading Google pages because Google is not the best place to educate themselves.

Keegan: Do people do that? Like instead of asking you questions, like if you say, “Hey, this is I’ve got a major health condition called cystic fibrosis,” instead of asking you about it, they go off to their office and just get on Google? Tell me what people do.

Lauren: There’s an assumption that the person they’re asking is going to downplay it in order to get the response that they want, which is a fair assumption. But it’s my health, and you don’t play with your health. It took a little while to find. And that was great. DFAT was actually fantastic throughout the whole process, but it just was more than a process and you would have to undergo it.

The biggest conversation I had was about which countries would be suitable and which ones wouldn’t and noting as well that it’s my career that I was thinking of. Some countries are better for your career than others. So you had to find a happy mix that suited them in terms of management and me in terms of my career. So we did come up with a list and it was based on whether that country had appropriate medical care whether they had CF, specific care, how close it was to Australia, access to medication, and general living in that country, the environment, the air quality, access to food, all that kind of stuff. So we did come up with a list and Vanuatu was one of those countries. That worked out perfect for me because I fell in love with the country when I was there. So it was a fantastic result for me.

Keegan: Had you been in Vanuatu before the posting before your job or was it just as a result of the job that you went there?

Lauren: It was as a result of the job and I couldn’t have planned it better because it’s genuinely a tropical island that is just wonderful people and has a great, what’s the word? The weather is fantastic, the climate’s beautiful.

Keegan: So it’s everything I’m imagining in my head, basically.

Lauren: Pretty much. There’s pineapple everywhere, pawpaw everywhere, coconuts, yeah, it’s fantastic.

Keegan: Actually, a tropical Island.

Lauren: It also led me to I guess my next career move out of that. So yeah, it worked out perfectly.

Keegan: Well, that’s an awesome whim that you got that kind of posting in a DFAT role. And it sounds like a wonderful country. I haven’t been there, but it sounds like it was amazing. How did you manage? As you said, your health personally, it was in a state where you were pretty comfortable that there wasn’t going to be any of those acute issues that would need emergency treatment. But how did you manage your health overall?

Lauren: Yeah, it was a conversation that I had with the specialist team, out of the Alfred in Melbourne. So there was a six month lead up to when I actually left to go on posting. And I took that six months to get myself into a position where I was very ready to go in terms of CF. I hadn’t had the hospital admission for four years, I think by that stage, my lung function was stable already. But it was just a matter of maintaining it because the job is obviously quite stressful and very busy, so being able to make sure that your health is up there so that if anything else happens in your life, the health can maintain itself.

For me, the way that I generally manage my CF is through exercise and good food and some alternative medicines, I believe very strongly in essential oils and the power of I guess the mind in terms of your health. So that was what I focused on. So I don’t do any structured physio, and I haven’t been on antibiotics for quite some time. So I’m in a very obviously a position where I could, I guess take the risk of moving overseas. When I was in Vanuatu, it became a little bit harder in some respects, but also much easier in other ways. Exercise was a little bit harder to do, because it’s really hot over there. Running during the day was just not really an option. And running at night alone, I probably wouldn’t do. So exercise became a little bit different. But on the flip side, access to fresh fruit and vegetables was remarkably easy.

They also have a lot of access to coconut oils and coconut-based products, which are fantastic for your health and essential oils, sandalwood and that kind of thing. So in that respect, it became a lot easier. They’re also a country that live very close to nature, which I think is just fantastic for health. And the climate over there was very beneficial for my lungs. Just the general way of life, I mean outside of work, because work was very busy, but the general way of life just has an ease about it. Everyone felt relaxed, just the way of life I guess suited my health very well and I managed to maintain my CF at the time that I was there.

Keegan: Great segway because I did want to talk about it. I know that you’ve got an interest in natural therapies and things like that.

Lauren: So I’ve been using essential oils for a very long time, not with any specific knowledge, I guess. I use things that made me feel good. I found obviously, eucalyptus is known to be really good for your lungs. A little bit of research showed that like basil was really good for your lungs. And pretty much just what you eat and what you ingest and what you expose your body to is really important, I think, and obviously, in conjunction with whatever medication etc, the team wants you to be on, everything is all together. But yeah, for me, meditation has been a really big one. I meditate every day. And that’s also mental health, which obviously then goes to physical health and the mind, I think does create the body. So if your mind is stressed, your body automatically becomes in a state of stress. And I think that’s pretty well known nowadays.

I always find that it’s a bit of trial and error with these things. So when I was living in Vanuatu, and there’s a drink over there called Kava, which is a local drink throughout a lot of the Pacific Islands. And the reason that I enjoy it so much apart from the fact that it’s a nice drink in a way to be social, is that it is relaxing, so it relaxes your body, and it also like dilates the lungs. So it actually for me, it was just a really good way to make the lungs relax a little bit. So you consume that at night after work and I think it really did wonders for my lung health over there and became a little bit of a, not a replacement, that’s the wrong choice of words. But it worked well when I wasn’t able to exercise as much as I usually would.

Keegan: So what would be the most important if you had a set of I don’t know, not to oversimplify it, but a set of rules, what are the most important things outside of the medical space that you would recommend to people for taking care of themselves?

Lauren: I think the most important one is to listen to your body and follow your intuition. I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules for anyone in relation to health. Some things work really well for some people and some things don’t work at all, when everyone says they should. And honestly, a lot of it is the placebo effect, if you believe it’s going to work, it’s going to work. So find things that you like, find things that you enjoy, if you really like chocolate, it’s going to do really good things for you. I don’t like chocolate, unfortunately, but I wish I did. It’s all about the emphasis you put on what you’re doing and it’s about the intention that you have. So if you believe that drinking tea in the morning instead of coffee is going to be beneficial for you, then it will be.

Keegan: You mentioned it a couple of times, but now you’ve started a business and that’s the next chapter, I suppose that followed after that government work. What do you do now and how did you transition from that?

Lauren: So when my posting came to an end, I returned to Canberra and was considering what to do next. And with government departments like that, you get thrown into the next thing, which in the end would have been another posting in another country. And I just had such a great time in a while too and found it so beneficial for me overall, in terms of mental health, physical health, etc. I just loved the country and the people that I wasn’t ready to part ways with it just yet. So I decided that I wanted to continue to at least be able to travel to and from and live and work parts of my job in Vanuatu.

At the same time, the Australian Government was announcing that they were about to start a Kava pilot program to be able to bring Kava to Australia, which is that drink I was talking about. So I decided my business would be to import Kava to Australia at a point in time when the Australian government makes it legal. So that’s essentially what I’m doing is setting up a business to be able to do that at the moment. It’s available as a medicinal product, so you can get it from a naturopath is like tablet form. But what we’re hoping to be able to do is actually bring it in as a more of a social drink similar to what is consumed throughout the other Pacific Island countries so that Pacific Islanders here can cover but also so that Australians can have a taste of Kava and see how good it is for just general after-work relaxation.

Keegan: Lauren, thank you so much for your time and for being a guest on the podcast.

Lauren: No worries, anytime. Thank you.

Keegan: Thanks for listening to this episode of the CFSTRONG podcast. Make sure you subscribe on Apple podcasts or your favorite podcast app, so you don’t miss the next episode. If you enjoyed this podcast we’d really appreciate if you could leave us a review on Apple podcasts to help other people find it or share us with your friends. Also, we should take a moment to remind you the views expressed in CFSTRONG podcasts may not be reflective of cystic fibrosis community cares viewpoints. The podcasts are designed to share information and provide insight into the lives of those living with cystic fibrosis around Australia. This podcast was made possible by the National Disability Insurance Agency and was produced by CF community care and CF Western Australia. Thanks for listening, and we’ll talk to you next time.