Originally published by Wairarapa Times Age and republished with permission

As a child, Masterton’s Dr Aage Terpstra (pictured with his wife, Jane Terpstra) says he was “the second person in about 50 years in Holland to have a snakebite”.

“That was interesting,” he laughs.

He stepped on the snake, an adder, while playing in some rushes with his brother and sister, and it responded by biting his big toe.

A passer-by thought there was nothing to it, but his brother, Nick, who also went on to become a doctor, felt it was more serious.

They biked to their GP, who greeted them at the door dressed in formal black-tie attire, his wife beside him in a ball gown.

“He turned to her and said ‘I think I should take this boy to the hospital’,” Aage recalls

What followed was a fairly miserable few days, as Aage got over the poison in his system, with anti-venom sent over from London.

But it was a taste of the medical profession that appeared to stick.

Having just retired after 41 years as a GP in Kuripuni, Aage says that experience probably helped put the idea of medicine as a profession into his head.

It was also a foretaste of what life as a GP could be like.

A few years later on the other side of the world, it was him dropping everything to attend to patients, in one case heading off to deliver a baby in a somewhat muddied state having been interrupted pumping out his pond.

On that occasion, he handed the pump to his wife, Jane, who has been his partner in the practice, as well as life.

The Terpstra family moved to New Zealand from Holland, first to Rotorua, before returning to their home country, and then coming back to settle in Nelson, via Australia, when Aage was in the fifth form.

He graduated from Otago Medical School in 1973, marrying Jane, who studied biochemistry, in their final year, before heading to Palmerston North hospital for two years as a house surgeon.

That was followed by three months at Dannevirke’s small rural hospital, at times virtually in charge, then work brought the couple back to Wairarapa, Jane’s home region.

He set up the practice in Kuripuni in 1978 after working at Wairarapa Hospital for a couple of years, having decided general practice was for him.

At that time being a solo GP was not unusual, but Aage is the last of his kind in Wairarapa.

In those days you built up your practice by word of mouth – and by delivering your future patients yourself.

Aage estimates he has delivered 2500 babies, spanning several generations.

“I had a lady bring in a photograph of two parents and four kids, all of whom I had delivered.

“The beauty of obstetrics was that it established a relationship with families right from the word go.

“It was a nice positive time, and then you grew with those patients as the kids grew up. That’s one of the big privileges of being a GP.”

Changes to midwifery legislation around 20 years ago meant GPs were no longer involved in delivering babies, but there was no shortage of patients.

Running a solo GP practice is essentially running a small business, Aage says, and he credits Jane as practice manager with enabling him to keep working until he was 70.

“It used to be that there was 80 per cent treating patients and 20 per cent paperwork – that has probably reversed now, and Jane has handled that.

“She has protected me from all the frustrating administration and compliance. I don’t think I would have gone on so long without her doing that. It left me just to get on with my job.”

Anyone moving to Wairarapa recently will have experienced the challenge of finding a doctor.

Aage says that of his class, 70 per cent went into general practice — these days it is more like 10-20 per cent.

He believes the College of GPs could do more to promote that side of the profession.

“It’s been undervalued and under supported, I think,” he said.

Jane adds to that view.

“There is just so much paperwork these days and doctors just don’t do it. They go into these big centres and they get paid a salary, and they walk out the door at the end of the day.

“Ours has been a small business which you run yourself, and you put all your effort into, compared to a system that is heading towards a more salaried service.”

Aage puts much of his success down to his staff, paying warm tribute to his two nurses – self-described “new girl” Jenny Taylor, who was at the practice for 25 years, and Sheryl Rowland, who worked with him for a remarkable 37 years.

“The staff have been the core of the business really – it wouldn’t have been the practice it was without them. It’s been a really happy workplace … it’s been one of the joys of my life.”

And of course there have been a huge number of characters among his patients, who over the years have become friends.

“I like people who are straightforward in the way they talk. A man came in and wanted his piles fixed — he told me he needed his exhaust valve repaired,” Aage laughs.

“And a real taciturn truck driver came in for his eye test and I could hear him mumbling next door … ‘what a bloody stupid test that is, there’s nothing as small as that on the road’.

“One patient, short and let’s say stocky, would announce his arrival every time by saying in a very loud voice ‘I want a short, fat doctor, not that tall skinny one’.”

At 1.93m [6ft 4in], Aage is hard to miss, and going into town can have its occupational hazards.

He is regularly stopped for a chat by patients.

Inevitably some can’t resist mentioning an ache, pain, or lump.

“I don’t go into town that much … a kerbside consultation is never a good consultation,” he laughs.

Much in medicine has changed in the past 41 years, with technology advancing tremendously, to allow much more non-invasive scanning, as well as more effective drugs.

Patients are also facing different pressures.

“I think there’s been an increase in depression and stress,” Aage says.

“Young people sometimes seem more connected to a virtual community online rather than communicating in the real world, but they’re also amazing in their adaptation to a very new world – they need to find a bit of balance there.”

Retirement will be filled with golf, getting stuck into some woodwork in the workshop, and taking the campervan around the country to see the eight grandchildren.

After 41 years of 10-and-a-half hour days, and a considerable amount of on-call work, time is now a bit more flexible.

Jane says it’s taking a bit of getting used to.

“We were sitting here at 6.30pm the other night and I said ‘now’s usually the time I would be ringing you to find out what sort of time you would be home’ – it will be nice to have things a bit more
open-ended – not so much of a rush.”

The Kuripuni practice will continue to operate, having been taken over by Latitude Health, under the umbrella of Compass Health.