Tall tales in Taranaki
Like most GPs with a few decades of practice behind them, Steve Finnigan has many a tale to tell.
For this 59-year-old practice owner, two that immediately
spring to mind took place within a few kilometres of each other, in the small
Taranaki settlement of Tarata.
“I was called out one summer when a kid got airborne on his
bike and landed flat on his back in a swamp,” Steve recalls.
Getting to the poor lad required trudging through knee deep
swamp water in 30 degree heat. But that wasn’t the worst part.
“Of all the places for the kid to land he was slap bang on
top of a slimy decomposing sheep carcass!” adds Steve. “I have never smelt
anything so awful in my entire life!” Nursing a broken femur the patient was
airlifted to hospital while Steve hosed himself down and headed back to his
His other stand-out story from 32 years as an Inglewood GP
involved dicing with death and saving a life after being called to an incident
on a Tarata hillside.
One farmer had died and another man was convulsing, whilst
lying on top of an electric fence. “I thought it was too much of a coincidence
for two men to collapse in the same spot within an hour of each other, and
realised it must be something to do with the fence,” explains Steve.
“So I grabbed a polar fleece, wrapped it around my hands, pulled
the electric fence out from under the second man and threw it down the hill.”
The second man was a neighbour of the deceased who had been
helping him complete an electric fencing job. The tragedy struck when the fence
touched an overhead powerline while being lifted into position.
Extreme cases aside, Steve Finnigan loves the continuity of
care afforded by working in a small town and practice. Steve knows most of his
patients very well. He has been treating many of them since 1984 when he and
wife Liz moved to Inglewood following training.
“I really love working in a small community,” says Steve,
who juggles GP life with a long list of hobbies including flying
radio-controlled aeroplanes, mountain climbing and biking. He ran his first
(and last, he tells me) marathon earlier this year.
“I feel privileged and humbled by the way that families take
you in as part of their wider whanau,” he says.
“Patients can become friends and that is a lovely thing. But
at the same time that familiarity can present challenges and you have to wear
the right hat at the right time.”
One challenge arising from this familiarity is being
approached by patients in Inglewood’s supermarket. Occasionally people will
want to discuss their medical conditions while Steve is picking up a few bits
and pieces for dinner.
“I will always speak to them but I’ll never quite stop
walking,” Steve says, demonstrating admirable diplomacy. “And I’ll usually finish
the conversation by suggesting they come to discuss their issue in more detail -
when I’m at work.”
Steve reckons some myth busting is in order around the life
of GPs in rural New Zealand. “There’s a perception about rural practice that we
are incredibly isolated and work extremely long hours,” he tells me.
“I think some of that relates to days gone by. In my
experience it’s nowhere near as tough as it used to be. For 25 years I did a
one in three week roster on 24/7. But that has basically gone now. On call
hours are extremely light these days.” But Steve certainly puts the hours in
with nine half-day sessions per week.
As the College prepares to launch its Practice Ownership
Guide, Steve highlights simplicity as the main benefit of owning a practice.
It was the only option available to him back in 1984 when he started out in
Inglewood but he knows that a partnership or other model wouldn’t have worked
for him. “Having seen other practices involved in partnerships it can just get
too complicated for my liking. Some don’t want to work full time, some work
faster than others, and how do you distribute income in an equitable way? I’m
glad I don’t have to worry about that.
“I would definitely recommend sole practice ownership. It has
certainly worked well for me. There’s obviously a financial outlay to consider
but you are your own boss, it is completely down to you and you are rewarded
for your efforts.”