Spotlight on a Member: Jacquie Chirgwin

Spotlight on a Member : Jacquie Chirgwin (Medical Oncologist and Garden Designer)

Looking back, I readily see the seeds of my disparate careers in my childhood. No doubt though, this is just a hindsight bias.

Every summer when I was young, my parents took my sister and me on a camping holiday to Europe. We would almost always go to the same camp sites in Switzerland and Austria and spend our days walking the magnificent Alpine countryside. My mother had a broad knowledge of both botany and geology so there was lots to learn. I also remember a favourite pastime from these trips. I would lose myself imagining elaborate renovations of the camping grounds where we stayed. I loved thinking how to make the sites more beautiful and better organised. I always included flower beds in these campsite plans (rarely were there any in the real life campsites) just like my mother’s garden at home. In fact both my parents were keen gardeners and so a lot was learned by osmosis whilst playing in the garden and watching my parents gardening.

However, as a teenager and young adult, I strayed from my passion for flowers, beauty and spatial planning, and followed my interest in medicine. This came from my mother too – I found her stories from her nursing days mesmerising. I remember at the age of 8 hoping it would be me who found “the” cure for cancer. I did not remember this until after I had become an Oncologist (cancer doctor), and in fact I did not get involved in the basic research required to investigate cancer “cures”. However, I did spend over 30 years caring for cancer patients (mostly with breast cancer), where I came to understand that the most valuable ingredient of what I had to offer was hope.

Sometime around 20 years ago, I found myself taking more interest in my garden and was so very chuffed one day to find a note in my letterbox from the local Victorian Open Garden Scheme organiser asking if I had an interest in opening my garden the following year. I said an enthusiastic ‘YES’ and one could say, “the rest is history”. This was 2002. I decided to name my garden ‘Garden of Hope’ – in acknowledgement of the importance of hope in my work and in remembrance of my mother whose middle name was Hope (as is mine, actually). Since then I have had my garden open a further four times and have raised over $50,000 for Breast Cancer research.

The preparation for the Open Garden really got me going and I started studying Garden Design via an online course and finally studied for a Graduate Certificate in Garden Design at Burnley, completing this in 2011. I started my business ‘Hope & Heart Garden Design’ in 2012. I continued working as an Oncologist (part time for a number of years) until March 2019 whilst also running my business. I noted intriguing similarities in my two vocations – particularly the focus on really listening to my patient/clients’ needs and hopes but also I found it interesting to contrast the level of expertise I had in the two different roles: in oncology I felt confident, knowledgeable and able to rely on years of experience; in garden design and horticulture I felt a beginner, unsure of myself and lacking in experience, and wondering whether I would ever really make it! Now after 8 years, I am able to see progress towards that expert status; perhaps only another 8 years!!

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