General practice training the icing on the cake

Originally published July 2017, republished 19 March 2021

Dr Heather Burling became a GP because she and husband Richard wanted to have a family and a good work life balance. The parents of Emirates Team New Zealand helmsman, Peter and his older brother Scott, made the decision that one parent would be at home with the kids, and that turned out to be school teacher Richard. “He loved it. The kids had a different upbringing with a bit more emphasis on taking them out and about. At Playcentre he would get out a hammer and some nails and soon have a group of boys around him,” Heather says.

Heather has never regretted choosing general practice. “The great joy of general practice is that you can make your practice suit yourself. For example if there was a school event for the kids, you could go and your colleagues covered for you, and you would do the same for them,” she says. 

She has been at the Dee Street Medical Centre in Mt Maunganui for 26 years and says the thing she most enjoys about general practice is the continuity. “I did a lot of GP obstetrics and the continuity is huge where you can be caring for four generations of patients. You see them through the rough times and the good times.” 

With Richard, a keen recreational sailor, the family enjoyed many happy times on the water. "We bought a boat so the kids could enjoy sailing and then the guy who sold us that particular boat sent us along to the yacht club, and Peter just got ridiculously good ridiculously quickly.

The family bought a trailer sailer and took part in Wednesday night social racing in Tauranga, which Heather describes as a great family activity. She also learnt to sail with the boys. “I can get around a course in a Laser, but it’s not my natural environment,” she says.

While Heather has enjoyed being the income earner of the family, she admits that there are ‘good doctoring days and bad doctoring days’ and there was one occasion when she wished she was half a world away. “Peter was competing at La Garda (in Northern Italy) in about 2006 and Richard was with him. One day they sent me a photo from La Garda of them having lunch complete with the chequered tablecloth and pizza. And I thought ‘muggins me is at work with a full caseload’.”

General practice has offered a good team environment, supportive colleagues, some flexibility and the ability to form good patient-doctor relationships but Heather says she is frustrated by funding shortfalls. “If you look back 10 years, our costs have increased but the funding has not kept up.”

Heather and Richard spent a month in Bermuda following Team New Zealand’s fortunes in the 2017 America’s Cup, which included watching the Kiwi boat capsize in spectacular fashion in Race 2 from the team’s headquarters. “Within 30 seconds you could see three heads in the water and the three on the boat all looked OK. But that was a very slow 30 seconds! The capsize was the worst moment, but generally sailing is a safe sport. Pete gets cuts and bruises but he’s never had a serious injury. I would rather he sailed than played rugby,” she says.

Back home and picking up the reins at the Dee Street practice, Heather says she doesn’t think it has sunk in that that her son was an integral part of the team which brought the America’s Cup home.  “We were just in Bermuda watching sailing races and didn’t feel that great sweep of enthusiasm of the country behind us. But now I have come home and everyone wants to talk about it and patients have brought me champagne, flowers and home baking,” she says. 

While obviously, they are proud as punch, they don’t enjoy all of the attention and don’t have any photographs of themselves at Bermuda with their high achieving son. “We’re not selfie people. At the Olympic Games at Rio (when Peter was the youngest ever 49er Olympic gold medal skipper), a camera was trained on us from eight feet away during the whole medal race. We hated it!”