Doctor with a mission

23:17, Feb 18 2013
Doug Short
BEDSIDE MANNER: Doug Short before his retirement as medical superintendent at Nelson Hospital.

Naomi Arnold meets the main force behind the development of Nelson Hospice and many other health initiatives, a man still going strong at 90.

‘Hello!" Dr Doug Short says as he opens his front door. "I'm turning 91 in four weeks."

As greetings go, it could hardly be more impressive and, indeed, Dr Short and his family have abundant birthday celebrations planned. They have organised a trip around all the haunts he inhabited as a young boy, and then as a surgeon with a young family, to Auckland, where he was born, and slowly travelling back south, meeting up with plenty of old friends along the way.

This time last year, Dr Short was planning a huge 90th birthday party, and had painted an invitation that he printed and handed out to his friends, family members, and former colleagues from Nelson Region Hospice, Health Action Trust, Nelson Hospital, and the Accident Compensation Corporation.

People dropped in and out as he kept an open house throughout the day, and he played piano for housefuls of them as they came and went, listening, laughing, and reminiscing.

They were people peppered through his long career as an obstetrician, surgeon and hospital administrator all around the country, including two stints in Nelson. Dr Short is one of those many Nelsonians who have flown under the radar for much of their lives, working behind the scenes in local health services and making a big impact on people's lives.


"It's been a good life," he says. Born in March of 1922, he grew up in Auckland. He was the only child of parents in their 40s, who had married when his father, a navy engineer, returned from World War I.

Young Doug wanted to be a doctor from the age of 10, and used to return from trips to the beach carrying bones and bits of animals, which his mother regarded with varying degrees of dismay. In the winter of 1935, when he was 13, the family moved to Nelson, taking the all-night ferry from Wellington. They got up at midnight to see the ship sail through French Pass, arriving to snow-covered mountains cradling a tiny city of 10,000. Doug attended Nelson College, while his father worked as an engineer at Ngawhatu.

He entered medical school aged just 16, but failed his first year because he bunked studying too often to watch films. The year was 1939 and war was looming in Europe for the second time. He later volunteered to join the navy, but did not serve because of his valuable medical studies.

When he graduated from the University of Otago, he was one of a class of 120: six women and 114 men.

"Things have changed a lot these days," he says.

He met his future wife, Marie, in his third year, and asked her out to the pictures. "I met her and I liked her. I thought she was super," he says. But he couldn't afford the film admission, so she had to pay.

Not allowed to marry before graduating, because it would distract from his studies, he came to Nelson as a house surgeon, and he and Marie tied the knot, aged 24.

They were busy years, setting an early tone for a life of constant service. He recalls working at Nelson Hospital from 7am on Monday morning until 1pm on Sunday, without a break, regularly clocking up 100-plus hour weeks.

The newlyweds lived above the hospital kitchen, in the former maternity nurses' training quarters. They had their first child, Jill, in 1947. A stint working in Richmond as a GP followed, and then after two years of intense saving, the young family sailed to England so Dr Short could do his postgraduate surgical training at the Edinburgh Royal College of Surgeons, arriving in Southampton on a miserable day near the end of 1950.

After the training, he had a job lined up in London, but a call from home, warning him of his father's illness from lung cancer, sent them back home to New Zealand. Dr Short worked his passage as the ship's medical officer. He managed to find a resident surgeon's job in Nelson - "a stroke of luck" - and settled back into Nelson life, spending time with his ailing father. When his father's doctor called and told him there were just a few days left, Dr Short hired an aero club plane to cross Cook Strait to nurse him, Dr Short holding a map and the pilot working out in flight how to manage his first Strait crossing.

Looking to advance his career, Dr Short took up medical superintendent positions at hospitals in Dannevirke, Tauranga, and Wellington. In between, there were stints as a medical adviser for a pharmaceutical company, and as a surgeon with a New Zealand medical team based in Quinhon during the Vietnam War.

He recalls "thousands" of difficult surgeries during his career, including one very nasty accident, in which a man had fallen onto machinery and had his skin torn off from abdomen to scrotum to buttocks.

Dr Short spent some time sketching the procedure, and then managed to piece him back together again.

A point of professional pride as a superintendent is that he made sure staff knew he could come to him at any time with a problem. He says that intimacy with staff has been lost as health board management and clinical care have slowly segregated over the years.

"It never became a place of, ‘Oh, that bloke up there in the office; we never see him'," he says. "There's nothing like that now."

In the early 1980s, the family moved back to Nelson, this time with two more children, David and Judy.

Dr Short recalls he and Marie seeing an advertisement for the job of medical superintendent of Nelson Hospital and Marie saying, "We're going back there." "I said, ‘Why?' She said, ‘I'd love to go back to where we were married, and very happy'."

He was aged 60 when he got the job, getting in just before an official decision was passed not to hire anyone over that age, and the rest of their time together in the city was "wonderful".

It was in Nelson, nearing the end of his medical administrative career, that he began to explore other opportunities for health services. Soon after he arrived, in 1982, he was approached by principal district nurse Barbara White about setting up a hospice service in the region, a relatively new service in New Zealand, although a year earlier Dr Short had helped set up a two-bed hospice within Whakatane Hospital.

In March 1983, a working group of interested parties including nurses, GPs, and Cancer Society representatives was formed to explore the possibility of a hospice in Nelson.

Dr Short became founding chairman of the Nelson Region Hospice Trust, retiring in 1998 as the hospice negotiated a site for its new inpatient unit.

He told the Nelson Mail then that the organisation had aimed for "a home-like environment" from day one.

"We have always envisaged a place where people can open french doors out onto a garden area - not three floors up in a building block.

"People who've been through chemotherapy and through all those things - you can't suddenly tip them out into the community," he says now.

"The place always had an air of comfort and happiness. The hospice is a marvellous additional organisation that provides not only help for the patient, but for someone to talk to, someone to make decisions, someone to liaise with the people in the hospital. It's reputation is tremendous."

That legacy has been long, challenging and yet successful. Elspeth Kennedy, current chairwoman of the trust, says he did "a fantastic job".

"Without him, I don't think we would have a hospice," she says.

"The vision of people like Dr Short kept the hospice going. Everything's changing and it's vision that we need and what we're going to have to get. We have to thank him for what he did.

"He's loved everywhere. Everybody still loves him."

Dr Short also helped found the New Zealand College of Community Medicine and Nelson's Health Action Trust, making the city one of the first to establish a community-based health promotion effort to help people with alcohol and tobacco use, broadened now to include mental health. He retired from its board in 1997.

"Nelson Hospital was a small hospital. It allowed me to think of doing some things that would bring the staff in touch with the community.

"The people requiring help in the community are not necessarily coming to the hospital. And it worked. It allowed young people, kids, adolescents, somewhere were they could go to talk about things and, in doing that, the people they were talking to thought, ‘This kid needs medical care', and it could be organised. In other places, it would never ever get looked at. That was really exciting for me.

"It's lovely to feel what is happening there, things I dreamed about when I was young," he says of Health Action.

"I couldn't even think about doing something about it [then]. It would have sounded bizarre. Mental health has still got such a distorted reputation."

The organisation recently celebrated its 25th birthday and Dr Short was there as one of the founders to help celebrate.

"He was really excited when we re-contacted him to celebrate," health promoter Rosey Duncan says.

"He was quite delighted that we had reignited that relationship after such a long time. When he comes around, we treat him like royalty, and he gets lots of hugs here. Our archives still contain a lot of his reports and they're valuable material for us."

In late 2000, he stood, in tears, as he farewelled the old Nelson Hospital buildings when they were demolished to make way for new development. His former home and workplace were built in 1924. They were almost as old as him.

He took a final tour of the place in October that year and said he was "devastated" to see the buildings come down. Progress was necessary, but awful, he told the Nelson Mail at the time.

Music is one of his life's great loves, alongside medicine and painting, and the results hang in his old haunts all around the city, as well as covering the walls of his home in central Nelson, where he is visited regularly by family.

He has only recently let others take over the heavier work in the garden.

"I'm getting physically a bit . . . He pauses, considering. "Not can't do it, but I'm not quite in the mood to do it."

These days, Dr Short is still making his regular rounds - to ACC, to the hospice, to Health Action Trust's villa on New St, visiting old friends.

"I still had plenty left," he says of his time after retirement from Nelson Hospital. So ACC came calling. "They said ‘Are you able to give us a hand?' I wondered what the hell the [Government] was thinking, having this old bloke over in Nelson working for them."

Marie died after a stroke in 2004, which he describes as "shattering".

"We were like brother and sister, as well as husband and wife," he says. "We were best friends. I miss her terribly. She was a wonderful partner."

Work helped him keep going, and he continued as a part-time medical advisor for ACC. When he retired from that in 2006, he was one of the country's oldest workers, aged 84.

He still goes to ACC every week. "Great friends, marvellous atmosphere," he says. The staff told him that if he didn't have morning tea with them every Friday he'd be in trouble.

"One day I couldn't go and the phone rang. It was someone saying, ‘Are you all right?' It's lovely. I've always enjoyed this, wherever I've gone."