How Christine Kirby became a pioneer in fertility treatment and created thousands of families
The first time Dr Christine Kirby saw her granddaughter Aria was through a microscope in a lab. For the woman whose life’s work is creating families - bringing thousands of babies into the world over the past 40 years - nothing had been harder than trying to help her only daughter Katie become a mum herself.
Christine was closely involved in Katie's IVF treatment, along with her colleagues at Repromed, the fertility clinic she co-founded as a University of Adelaide company in 1987. She was part of a management buy-out of Repromed in 2006, and went into partnership with a private equity firm in 2008. In 2014, Repromed was floated on the ASX.
“It was really hard, to know what I knew but to sit with Katie and at times keep my mouth shut knowing all the things that could potentially go wrong in her cycle,” said Christine. “I remember when Katie had been down in Adelaide from NSW (where she lives) for her cycle, and my husband Chris and I had taken her to the airport after her treatment. “We were on our way back home to Hindmarsh Island, and the next minute there’s this sobbing phone call with Katie saying, ‘mum, nothing fertilised’. She was at the airport alone and there’s nothing I could do, absolutely nothing.” As heartbreaking as this was, Christine tried to view it as a learning opportunity.
“The journey of waiting – to see how many eggs there are, and then seeing what’s fertilised, and then another few days of waiting to see what develops – I think it’s part of your personal growth. “You’d prefer you weren’t going through it, but it makes you really understand what’s happening from a patient’s perspective.”
Having that understanding of the soul crushing mental anguish and devastation felt after failed IVF cycles (it took five cycles for Katie to finally conceive Aria), and then experiencing the elation after successful treatment is something that sets Christine apart from other fertility specialists.
Known for her compassion and nurturing approach, Christine has looked after thousands of people on their journey to parenthood, while supporting those who have been unable to conceive. Last year, she was recognised for being a champion of change, and for her outstanding contribution to fertility treatment by being inducted into the prestigious SA Women’s Honour Roll. “I know IVF is regarded as a business, but I wouldn’t like to see the business aspect overriding the need to provide the best care possible for the patients you’re treating. “My hope is that fertility treatment is based on holistic care to achieve the best outcome for parents and the best outcome for children,” she said.
Regarded as a pioneer in fertility treatment, Christine has certainly had an incredible career, punctuated with challenges, amazing stories and trailblazing achievements. Working in reproductive medicine since the first IVF baby was born at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital (TQEH) in 1983, and dedicating 40 years of her life to the development and provision of fertility services and treatment, Christine has seen assisted reproductive technologies dramatically evolve over the years. “It’s certainly been a journey of highs and lows, there’s no question about that,” she said. “The number of people we help now is really high. For example, with the advent of being able to do aneuploidy screening on embryos (checking for the correct number of chromosomes), if you’ve got a patient in their 40s and can put a screened embryo back in, they have pregnancy rates of 50 per cent per cycle which is absolutely amazing.”
Things have come a long way since Christine completed her obstetrics and gynaecology (O&G) training at the TQEH in 1987. “The medical superintendent in 1979 found out I was pregnant and actually tried to get me to resign. He hired someone to replace me and said I needed to resign and if I did, I’d get a job next year, which was a bit of a shocker. “I told him I wasn’t quite ready to resign yet, thank you very much,” said Christine. A year after becoming one of the RAH's first female surgical trainees in 1978, Christine was the first O&G trainee in South Australia to have a baby during her training. And in 1982, she became TQEH's first ever fertility clinic registrar.
Hailing from Bordertown, Christine came from a family of ‘pretty determined women’, something she attributes to helping her handle setbacks and sexism. After having her bag with all her exam notes stolen in her final year of high school, and feeling very homesick at the time, Christine gave up on her childhood dream of studying medicine and did physiotherapy instead. “Within the first six months of being at university, I knew I made a mistake, and so spent the next three years trying to get into medicine, which is a really, really interesting journey on its own.”
Each year, Christine applied to do the course, and was interviewed, but each time was unsuccessful.
“My hope is that fertility treatment is based on holistic care to achieve the best outcome for parents and the best outcome for children.” Christine Kirby
“When I went for my interview in my third year of physiotherapy, with the same interview panel, this guy said to me, ‘I don’t really understand why you want to do this. You can buy a car, you can travel overseas, you could even marry a doctor if you wanted to’.”
In 1973, Christine had interviewed for an Air Force cadetship in medicine. “The interviewer said to me, ‘look, we don’t actually have any facility to have a female medical cadetship in the Air Force’, so I said to him, ‘but more than half of the trainees are now female so if you don’t sort this out, you’re going to be missing out on all sorts of things’. Around 12 months later, I received a phone call saying, ‘look, it’s all changed, you can apply now’, but the moment had passed.”
These days, Christine works as a Senior Fertility Specialist at Repromed, spends precious time with Aria and Katie, and enjoys tarmac car rallies with husband Chris. “Chris and I first met at Goolwa speedboat racing. He was driving his boat and I was racing my dad’s boat. “Motorsport is our relaxation passion so we do a lot of tarmac rallies,” Christine said.
As she proudly flicks through the many photos of Aria, it’s clear how besotted Christine is with the ‘bubbly girl’ she helped create. “It’s amazing – the magic of being able to look at an embryo and then look at their little person. You look down a microscope and say to yourself ‘how? How does that happen?’”
Story by Rachael Nightingale
Photos by Matt Turner