Before the pandemic, VicHealth chief executive officer Dr Sandro Demaio would get ‘blank looks’ whenever he told people he had a PhD in epidemiology. But two years later, his work and wealth of knowledge in public health is more important, and more respected, than ever!
Sandro initially thought he would be a rural-based GP, but ‘life had other plans’. His experiences delivering aid in Sri Lanka after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, working with patients across Victoria’s regional and metropolitan hospitals, and seeing the devastating impact of preventable diseases first-hand, all pushed him towards a career in public health.
‘At each turn along the way, I asked myself a question. Could I have a greater impact with the skills and opportunities I have been given doing what I do now, or something else?’ Sandro explains.
He left clinical medicine and undertook a Masters, then a PhD in Copenhagen. From there, he spent two years at Harvard Medical School, and three years working for the World Health Organisation to ‘support national governments around the world to respond to and address chronic disease’ through policy.
After 10 years overseas, Sandro was looking to return home to Melbourne to be closer to family and his partner, Liv, when the position at VicHealth came up. His job involves leading the team at the state’s peak health promotion foundation, which conducts vital research, works to prevent chronic disease in our community, and produces public campaigns to promote a healthier Victoria. Some of the agency’s current initiatives include The Big Connect, a major program to support young people’s mental health and forge new connections, while they’re also pushing to address food insecurity through healthy local food hubs.
‘VicHealth is leading the charge when it comes to post-pandemic health recovery,’ Sandro explains. ‘I strongly believe that health is a human right, and that everyone deserves a future that’s healthy. What gets me out of bed in the morning is the strong desire to contribute to the health and well-being of those around me, and across the world’.
I wake up at 6:10am. The first thing I do every morning is make a long black coffee with a splosh (big splash) of cold milk. I normally function pretty well in the mornings, which is likely a leftover from my days of early ward rounds.
I like the morning. It’s often a time when I will read the world news, catch up on social media, and water the garden.
The time I start work depends on the day. I spend three days in the office and two visiting partners, often in regional Victoria. Usually, I get into the office in Spencer St around 8am. I take the tram, or if it’s sunny I walk through Princes Park and take a call on the hour’s journey. Once in the office, I check in with my team and have another coffee and welcome any partners working in the Victorian Health Promotion Hub (VicHealth’s HQ) that day. Then I go over the major events and updates, before getting stuck into business.
The weeks are busy, so my lunch break often becomes another meeting. Sometimes I will grab some sushi, or a banh mi.
In the afternoons, I try to get half an hour to wander around the office and check in with the team. It’s a great way to learn more about the work, and get to know our incredible staff. It always gives me a huge amount of energy.