Wellingtonian Interview: Burton King

Last updated 15:01 18/09/2012
Burton King
Burton King: "I can remember these terrified women sitting in the waiting room, waiting for their mammograms, waiting for us to pronounce what their life would be like."

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Oncology surgeon Burton King talks about breast cancer, being in the army and dancing. 

Did you always want to be a surgeon?

I grew up in South Africa at a time when things were segregated and I wanted to be a theoretical physicist. But it took me only two weeks at university to realise that was never going to happen, because I was nowhere near smart enough. So I wanted to be an engineer.

How did you get from engineering into medicine?

I wasn't allowed to be an engineer, because of the way the politics was set up in South Africa back then.

I did a science degree because the professor told me he felt sure the law was going to change and if I did a science degree with the right subjects, he would take me into engineering.

After three years the law hadn't changed and my options were to keep working in the factory I was in, to become a teacher, or do medicine. I was never cut out to be a teacher, so I went to do medicine with a sense of regret and dread, because I thought it was taking me so far away from engineering. Any regrets now?

I don't think I had the smarts to be a theoretical physicist with engineering principles, not even close. So I don't have regrets. I think I would've been working in a light bulb factory. I wouldn't have been designing space missions or building giant bridges.

I guess doing surgery is a sort of bio-engineering, although I didn't think of that at the time.

Did you go straight into oncology?

No. Surgery in South Africa was dominated by trauma - what we call the knife and gun club. Trauma is divided into two. There's penetrating trauma, which is knife and gunshot wounds and then there's blunt trauma, which is car accidents, blast injuries, falls. So, the surgeon I worked for divided us up into the knife and gun club or the close encounters of the thud kind group. I then went to the United Kingdom, before New Zealand.

Why did you eventually choose to specialise in breast cancer surgery?

I saw breast cancer surgery being done so badly and I saw women being treated so unsympathetically. This was 24 years ago and things have changed. But I can remember these terrified women sitting in the waiting room, waiting for their mammograms, waiting for us to pronounce what their life would be like.

There were pretty decent doctors, but they didn't have the patience or the insight. Women with breast cancer need to be reassured, they need an explanation. It is an opportunity to do it well with sympathy and kindness. This doesn't come naturally, because I am not patient, but it is good for me and I like treating women.

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You are also a major in the Army Reserve. What drew you to joining the army as a medic?

After 9/11, I became a civilian volunteer with the army the next week. The army was interested in me because of the trauma experience I had, and I was impressed with the officer corps. They were smart, intelligent people and they were disciplined and focused.

Living in Wellington with a family, long before Christchurch, I thought I had to be involved with disaster management. They are the only people who seem to have, in my view, a credible disaster response in terms of infrastructure and what they call the ability to "project force", to get several hundred people in one place and support them while they did what they had to do. I just don't see any one else being able to do that.

You originally came to New Zealand on a working holiday.

Yes. I was supposed to go back to Scotland and a general surgery job. I had a job in Kaitaia Hospital and that's where I met my wife. Her sister was a theatre nurse and she set me up. It was a conspiracy from the beginning. My wife says there was no conspiracy, but she is arguing from interest, I think. How else did she just happen to be at this Christmas party with her sister. So I came here for just six months and that was 20 years ago.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I don't have many hobbies except reading outside of medicine. In saying that I haven't picked up a book in months. I'm just so busy. I don't play golf, I haven't got the patience.

One of my New Year resolutions for this year was to learn ballroom dancing. I've got to learn the tango, before I'm too decrepit. I like the romance and drama of it. I'm going to make time for that. It's going to be hard work for me because I have no sense of rhythm, I can't dance and I think I am tone-deaf. But I really want to do it and my wife said she will learn with me.

- The Wellingtonian


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