The New Zealander of the Year Award is an annual, hotly contested event, that aims to reward the very things that make New Zealanders unique – innovation, fortitude, and a good dose of community spirit contributing towards making New Zealand a better place to live. The 2014 winner of the award was Dr Lance O’Sullivan, a GP based in the north of New Zealand, in a small town called Kaitaia – an area renowned for the dire socio-economic circumstances of the largely Maori population. Dubbed “the revolutionary health hero”, Dr O’Sullivan and his wife, Tracy, are the founders of a low-cost health clinic, Te Kohanga Whakaora (The Nest of Wellness), as well as the school-based Manawa Ora Korokoro Ora (Moko) health services for more than 2000 children in the Kaitaia area, and the Kainga Ora (Well Home) project.
The Good Doctor, is Lance O’Sullivan’s story – from his humble upbringing in East Auckland to his troubled teenage years, and his eventual acceptance at medical school, the first-person narrated story is a thoughtful reminiscence of his past, as well as an honest, and at times fittingly critical analysis of the political, institutional and sometimes personal bias against Maori (and against people struggling within the cycle of poverty).
Born to a Pakeha mum and Maori dad, O’Sullivan charts his growing feelings of alienation from both his Pakeha side and his Maori side, and the narrative reflects on his struggles to reconcile living in a solo-parent family, with only occasional interactions from his alcoholic father. On his way to becoming the kind of stereotypical statistic that the ineffective school system of the time expected from him – with various expulsions and other brushes with the system – O’Sullivan experienced one of those rare moments of fate that marked a much needed turning point for him: the acceptance into the Maori boarding school Hato Petera.
Following in the footsteps of Hato Petera success stories, such as Sir Ranginui Walker, Sir Toby Curtis and Ralph Hotere, O’ Sullivan describes finding his Maori identity, and in the process, finding himself, and finding the values that would eventually guide him towards a career where he could affect great change. The frustrations of medical school and his initial stints in hospitals and clinics reveal a great deal about the New Zealand medical system that frustrates many doctors and patients – inadequacies in funding, misdirected resources, and the fact that the medical system is only an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff for the many people who live with extreme poverty, lack of education and little hope.
The Good Doctor charts O’Sullivan’s increasing determination and innovative thinking about how to change the system to be truly effective. His efforts to improve Maori, children’s and underprivileged people’s health – and the reality of a truly unequal and dysfunctional system that is often glossed over by politicians and ignored by the media – is something that every New Zealander ought to be aware of.
The book is a simply written, yet powerful narrative, in that it provides insight from a man who has sat on both sides of the fence – the side of living in despair and dysfunction, and the side of being a health professional looking at the systems and looking for solutions, many of which are straightforward and effective, and can be taken a long way by Government (and communities) acknowledging the problems, and becoming dedicated to change. The Good Doctor is a highly relevant, inspiring and timely narrative that should be on the “must-read” list of all New Zealanders, and anyone else looking for an engaging story of one man’s journey to fight inequalities.