Life Story: A lifetime of compassion from Pirkko Verrier Jones
OBITUARY: A doctor in a rural African village, a psychiatrist, a language buff and an art history graduate – Pirkko Pauliina Verrier Jones (nee Kekalainen) was a woman of varied talents who spread her wisdom across three continents, several hospitals and her nine grandchildren.
The eldest of three siblings, Pirkko, known as Pauliina, was born during a harsh Finnish winter on December 21, 1926. She went on to work internationally as a doctor and spoke five languages. The 91-year-old died in Christchurch on August 22.
Raised in Finland, Pauliina spent much of her childhood at the family's lakeside holiday home, a place she sought to recreate in South Africa and New Zealand. Heart damage after a bout of rheumatic fever plagued her health for much of her life, to which her father's remedy was making her run up and down steps daily.
A musical child, Pauliina danced ballet en pointe, played violin in an orchestra, dabbled in art and spoke Finnish and English. She went on to learn conversational Swedish, French and German. Religious, but not bound to one faith, she loved the ceremonies and traditions of the High Anglican, Greek and Russian orthodox churches.
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Her strong belief in God become one of her defining characteristics, and something she came to rely on in later life.
A young Pauliina travelled to England where she met Arthur Jones while strawberry picking. The pair, who were both studying medicine, married in 1951, before Pauliina returned to Finland for two years. She graduated and the young couple emigrated to work at a Christian mission hospital in Ciskei, near South Africa.
"Mother was pregnant with her first daughter, Johanna, on the long sea trip over and sick much of the way and later described giving birth to Johanna as the hardest, most painful experience of her life," Pauliina's son, Christopher, recalled.
The climate was sweltering, tuberculosis was rife and snakes and scorpions rampant. Families lived in thatched mud huts with dried cow dung on the floor. Pauliina employed an artist to paint pictures of local women, who wore tall hats and smoked pipes, on the interior walls of their home.
When Arthur decided to pursue psychiatry, Pauliina followed him as a mark of support. The family lived on the grounds of a mental health facility in Cape Town, and both passed their specialist exams and became psychiatrists. A busy time in their lives, Pauliina went on to work as a district surgeon, focused on geriatric nursing care and travelled over 150 kilometres a day visiting patients. She continued studying part time for an art and art history degree and raised their three children – Christopher, Johanna and Teresa.
Niggling health issues again bothered Pauliina, who was barely eating to relieve the strain on her heart. A risky aortic valve replacement improved her condition, but "was undoubtedly helped by her continuing to eat like a sparrow".
"[Her surgeon] did comment after the operation that her heart was like that of an athlete, so perhaps her father forcing her to run up and down steps after getting rheumatic fever as a child had been beneficial after all," her son said.
Johanna's Rotary Exchange to Christchurch inspired the family to flee the racial segregation dividing South Africa and move to New Zealand. They settled in Cashmere, where Pauliina completed her degree, then moved to a property in the hills above Little River. She spent several years working at Sunnyside Hospital, the first mental asylum to be built in Christchurch.
The "brave, independent, gracious and compassionate" woman died after a mitral heart valve replacement. She is survived by her three children and nine grandchildren "who are better for having known her and the example of saintlike humility and compassion she always set".