Full, rewarding life just what the doctor ordered

TIME TO HIMSELF: The golf course is calling Dr Des Prendergast in his retirement.
TIME TO HIMSELF: The golf course is calling Dr Des Prendergast in his retirement.

Dr Des Prendergast has retired after 53 years in the medical profession. Don Wright spent time with the well-regarded medicine man

Des Prendergast's ability to relate to patients from many walks of life established him as a people's person as much as a doctor acclaimed as a friend and trusted confidante, also a practitioner of established medical ethics for his 53 years in the profession.

Former associates will miss him as much as his wide and varied band of patients who showered accolades and goodwill messages on him on his retirement last year.

"Retirement means that the golf course and garden might see more of me now, so will my loyal and supportive wife Denise and our five sons and their families," he said.

"Denise was my first receptionist for five years when I practiced at Newfield in Invercargill. We have enjoyed a happy and rewarding marriage and family life."

His wife quipped: "He can do what he likes now, so long as he does as he is told."

The popular and respected doctor endeared himself to many sports people, particularly in boxing, rugby and racing, also golf, often with fellow doctors and marked by his lowest handicap of three. He represented Otago University in A and B grade rugby teams and the inaugural rugby league team for two years.

Many mindful of his refined and pleasant disposition might not have appreciated he was a New Zealand Universities welterweight boxing champion and selected for a New Zealand Universities team to tour Australia.

Late boxing personalities Dick Baker and Awarua MP Gordon Grieve instigated his involvement as medical officer for the Southland Boxing Association for eight years. Two national championship tournaments were held in Invercargill while he officiated. New Zealand Boxing Council officials heaped praise on him for his input.

He was medical officer of the Southland Rugby Football Union for eight years and nominated by the SRFU as medical officer for the All Black tour of South Africa in 1995.

A life member of the Southland Racing Club, Dr Prendergast served 25 years as honorary surgeon of the club and was a vice-president during 1972-79. Matchwood, raced with the late Bert Crooks, won five races.

"Looking back, I was born at Waitoru Station and my grandfather Thomas, who was an auctioneer for Wright Stephensons, was the first man to drive a car in Western Southland," he said.

"I attended Mosgiel District High School and studied agriculture and horticulture with the intention of taking up farming."

He gained a record 100 per cent for School Certificate in agriculture and was captain of the rugby first XV and head prefect, also gaining a scholarship to Lincoln College for an essay titled "Our Civilisation Depends on the Top Eight Inches."

Leaving school in 1951, he attended Dunedin Teachers' College for two years and asked for a year's leave of absence to study science at the University of Otago, specifically physics, chemistry and zoology, then gaining entry to the then New Zealand Medical School in 1955.

Dr Howard Hunter, superintendent of Kew Hospital in 1959, on introduction said to the young doctor: "Here's a job for you boy."

It was to last several hours removing the stones embedded in the buttock of the late Burt Munro after a fall at Teretonga race track.

Dr Hunter later introduced him to the Southland Racing Club and told him that he knew his grandfather who had been on the SRC committee for 41 years and that he had sold him a horse that was "no bloody good" - it only won 11 races.

Dr Prendergast began general practice in Ranfurly as a locum general practitioner and superintendent of Maniototo Hospital for three months.

"My first night was the longest in general practice as I was called to the obstetric unit for a haemorrhage. I needed blood which required me to call on donors, cross match and transfuse.

"I then needed an anaesthetist and learned the job was mine before surgically removing the offending placenta."

The whole procedure took 11 hours and, before going home, he had to X-ray and reset a fractured arm.

That introduction to general practice was daunting and he asked himself "if this is general practice, I don't think I like it".

Shifting to Newfield in Invercargill as a GP, he was called by the late Gordon Davidson to give his first anaesthetic in private at Park Hospital. "He started me on 12 years of general practice associated with anaesthetics and also started me up as medical examiner for civil aviation, but I decided I needed more knowledge of anaesthetics.

"Dr David Pottinger arranged for me to study under Dr Kevin McCall, the director of anaesthetics in Victoria, Australia.

"I did one year fulltime in anaesthetics at Kew and Park hospitals and administered 18,000 anaesthetics over a 12-year period.

"Narco-hypnosis was a side issue that I practised.

"A surgeon, who was the patient, asked me to give him an anaesthetic on a Sunday night.

"When the patient was induced, I said to him that he would never beat Prendergast again at golf.

"On coming out of the anaesthetic, he was repeating the same words.

"It worked . . . he never beat me at golf again."

In late 1973, Dr Prendergast was asked by the board of Southland Frozen Meat to be medical officer at the Makarewa plant, a position he held until its closure in 1999.

"Many men working in close quarters with sharp knives could result in some serious hand and finger injuries, some severed and requiring urgent attention and involved stitching." One butcher later remarked that the surgery to his hand was great but that he had to shear the graft twice a year.

During that period, the company sent him to study occupational medicine in England and Germany.

While at Makarewa, he gained a fellowship in occupational medicine from the Royal College in Melbourne.

Dr Prendergast also became widely known in his role of police surgeon for over 20 years.

"I had many calls to homicides but the one that stuck most in my mind was being called at 2am on a cold frosty morning to examine the contents of a car boot.

"In it was the murdered wife of a former neighbour of mine."

Medicine had changed greatly.

The early days were the best, in his opinion.

Surgeons, gynaecologists and GPs mixed freely on social occasions.

Nobody was left out.

Doctors, including Bert Insull, Norman MacLean, Bruce Wells, Gordon Davidson, Doug Allen, Bob Dykes, Graham Tait and Ian Watson, the early pioneers, were hard to beat.

The Southland Times