“A friend of mine once said, ‘If you're doing the same operation for ten years in a row, it's probably time to rethink how you're doing it,'" says Professor Chris Forrest, Paediatric Plastic Surgeon at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto, and for the past year, part-time Sydney Sider, working across the two major hospitals of Sydney Children's Hospitals Network
A generous bequest left to Sydney Children's Hospitals Foundation (SCHF) provided funding for an international expert in paediatric craniofacial plastic surgery to relocate to Sydney in 2022 to share incredible insights, strategies and processes with neurosurgeons and paediatric plastic surgeons at both Sydney Children's Hospital, Randwick and The Children's Hospital at Westmead.
“It has been a delight to be able to be part of those craniofacial teams across the Randwick and Westmead hospitals. I have helped combine an alignment between the two units that are geographically 30 kilometres apart, but from a socioeconomic point of view, represent different cultures of Sydney and NSW.
“Being able to have a foot in both camps was a fantastic experience for me, and I hope that at the end of my time, I will have been able to generate a collaborative community spirit between those two sites,” Professor Forrest said.
Professor Forrest has been able to work seamlessly across the two hospital sites, helping the teams come together to provide world-class patient care. Thanks to his work with Sydney Children's Hospitals Network (SCHN), a patient first seen at The Children's Hospital at Westmead was able to be transferred to the surgical team at Sydney Children's Hospital, Randwick, to have his operation to treat craniosynostosis, and then able to continue his follow up care at The Children's Hospital at Westmead.
Professor Forrest's services and formal training in new techniques and equipment have been instrumental in advancing the skills of the teams across Sydney Children's Hospitals Network to treat children with conditions like craniosynostosis. A condition where the sutures of the skull have fused prematurely. Babies are typically born with their skulls unfused, allowing space for the brain to grow. Fusing is usually completely fusing around the age of seven when the brain has reached its adult size.
Pictured: Professor Chris Forrest in an operating theatre
With over one in 2,000 children in NSW alone being affected by craniosynostosis every year, there are approximately 60 to 70 patients who require the skills and techniques being passed on by Professor Forrest.
“One of the things that I was able to introduce was the concept of operating on children at a very early age, usually around two to three months, and instead of literally removing the bone and reshaping it essentially without suture in the skull has fused, removing the bone and making a new suture. What that does is allow the brain to push the skull from inside to help correct the shape of the head, but also with the help of a moulding helmet therapy program that I was able to help generate. The helmets that these children wear on the outside help control the shape of their heads. It's very physiologic because we're harnessing the growth potential of the body to push the skull into the shape that it was meant to be in.”
Along with bringing new and innovative techniques to Australia, Professor Forrest is hoping more kids with craniofacial abnormalities will pass what he calls ‘the supermarket test.’
“My goal when I look after these children is to make them pass the supermarket test, meaning that if you were walking past them in a supermarket, you wouldn't look twice and think, ‘Oh my goodness, what's wrong with that child's head?’”
Professor Forrest has connected with each paediatric plastic surgery centre across Australia and New Zealand to create a forum for new and exciting ideas to be shared freely amongst his Australian peers.
“We've developed paediatric craniofacial quality improvement rounds. Usually once every 6 to 8 weeks, all of our units get on Zoom, and we talk about a subject or complicated patients, and we rotate the centres in terms of who presents on specific subjects. And I have to say it's gotten significant traction. I think now people know a little bit more about each other and what each of the various units are doing, and that's been really rewarding. The idea of bringing the units together and having a common database and shared knowledge about patients is really, really powerful.”
Reflecting on what he has enjoyed about working with SCHN, Professor Forrest remarked, “I've enjoyed the creative, collaborative approach that I've always had through different opportunities in my career. I think that's one of the biggest things that drew me to Sydney was the fact that there are these two units with a great population of patients and some fantastic pathology, and if I could do anything to help kind of catalyze, that would be great.”
“We really have very few places where they can go and get highly sophisticated expertise in the form of a team, and that's the most wonderful thing about the Sydney Children's Hospital Network is that the two sides, both Randwick and Westmead, have a great team approach to managing children with facial differences.”
On the generous philanthropic support that has enabled his work to reshape treatment for children with craniosynostosis at Sydney Children's Hospitals Network, Professor Forrest says
“Children are the future and while most children won't have to access the healthcare system in a very significant way, for those children who are not quite so fortunate, being able to access state of the art technology and care within the healthcare system, that is a true gift, and doing anything big or small to be able to support that is something that's going to last that child's lifetime.
“On behalf of the network and also the children that we are privileged to treat, I just like to thank you for your kindness, your generosity and your thoughtfulness in providing support for our program. I really appreciate it, and I can tell you that our patients and families appreciate that even more
Please donate to the Sydney Children’s Hospitals Foundation Christmas Appeal to help change one kid’s life today and future-proof the health of all kids tomorrow. Visit www.schf.org.au/ChristmasAppeal for more information on how you can get involved.