Twelve Questions with John Harman

By Jennifer Dann

Surgeon John Harman performed the first breast reconstruction surgery in New Zealand and set up the country's first breast clinic. The 63-year-old has become a luxury apartment developer after a spa pool accident last year left him unable to operate.
John Harman says apartment-style living is liberating. Photo / Greg Bowker
John Harman says apartment-style living is liberating. Photo / Greg Bowker

1 Did you have early ambitions to become a doctor?

I grew up in Rotorua. My father was full-blooded Fijian, he worked as a plasterer and mum was a teacher. I was the oldest of seven children. At age 12 I became a St John ambulance cadet and won the national bandaging champs. I liked helping people and the science associated with medicine but I didn't think I was bright enough to be a doctor. All it took was for one science teacher to tell me that I was.

2 Why did you decide to specialise in breast cancer surgery?

I lost my mother when I was 17. She died in a car accident. So I understand closely how important mothers are and the threat breast cancer poses to the family unit. As a senior registrar, I went to Cardiff to work at a breast and endocrine unit and found it was an area of medicine that has a lot of science associated with it because women are very happy to enter into clinical trials. I also found that I could communicate with women better.

People make all sorts of stupid and crass jokes about breast surgeons, but the honest truth is I love women and I love science. I can sit and read breast journals all day and night.

3 Why do you prefer working in private health care?

I'm just not suited for the public system. It's a big monolith " hard to move. For example I'm using a new surgical tool my friend invented that is still only being trialled in the public sector. I spent three years as a general surgeon at Auckland Hospital back in the 1970s but didn't enjoy it. My patients always came first so if I couldn't get a sick child into surgery at 3am I'd ring the superintendent. Bullying was a big issue among surgeons back then. It was like the front lines of war, a macho sport - survival of the fittest. It was terrible and don't think those systems change easily.

4 Do you ever worry about women who can't afford private health care?

The quality of surgery in the public sector is excellent but they don't have easy access to breast reconstruction surgery. That's a resource issue. If I was in the public system I would cry for those patients. For some women with breast cancer the fear of mutilation is higher than their fear of dying. I do fear for the future - as the population ages, medical costs are increasing hugely and the choices are not enjoyable. With St Marks clinic I can invest in the latest technology. I've been in debt since I set the clinic up in 1993. I've just bought two new mammogram machines for half a million bucks.

5 Do you ever regret not spending enough time with your children?

Long hours basically destroyed my first marriage. I used to work 80 to 100 hours a week. My wife took off with another guy, leaving me with our three children aged 7, 3 and 1. Being a solo dad was tough. We had a nanny so I kept working but that was partly why I chose to specialise. I quickly learnt you cannot have a hangover and look after three kids on a Saturday morning, whereas when we were in the trenches training to be surgeons we'd blow off steam by getting drunk on our day off. Being a solo dad was lonely too. I had the occasional girlfriend but I was too busy setting up the breast clinic to have a permanent relationship.

6 How old were the children when you got married for the second time?

The children were teenagers when I met Karen. We had a whirlwind courtship. Because I'm an expert in women I know when I've found a good one. The kids weren't surprised. They think of me as eccentric. I suppose because I'm quite extroverted and liberal. I have a taste in arts and a quirky sense of humour. I'm always making terrible jokes.

7 As a father, what do you think about the way women's bodies are portrayed in our society?

It's a real problem. Of course cosmetic surgery contributes to that. But to be good at breast reconstruction surgery I need to understand everything about the cosmetic side. Less than 10 per cent of the breast surgeries I perform are cosmetic and most of those are reductions. Some women are so embarrassed by their breast size they don't do things like dance, swim or exercise. I took 4kg off my mother-in-law's breasts, so now I call any huge reduction a "mother-in-law".

8 Do you ever refuse to carry out a cosmetic surgery?

We try and get them all to see a psychologist beforehand. If they have an extreme personality disorder we'll suggest they seek help elsewhere, but it's judgmental to say someone has a personality disorder just because they want surgery. I've seen breast implants change so many women's lives in terms of confidence. Some were too shy to undress in front of their husbands. It's a shame that society has made them feel that way but I'm not setting out to change society.

9 How much is money a motivating factor?

I work hard enough to have a good lifestyle. Nowadays public surgeons are probably paid more than private, but they're working 70-hour weeks compared to my 40 hours, so good on them.

10 Why did you stop doing surgery?

I smashed my wrist getting out of a spa pool after a workout in Switzerland last year. I had a plate put in but it'll never be 100 per cent right so I stopped operating. It was probably good timing. I'm 63 now and don't want to burn out.

11 Why have you become a luxury apartment developer?

I bought land on St Mark's Rd in Remuera 30 years ago to build the breast clinic. Eighteen months ago the zoning changed to six stories so I decided to build high quality apartments. The average sale price is $1.4 million. We've sold about 60 per cent of them since going on the market late last year, which is slower than I expected. I could sell the land which has been the advice of many of my friends and colleagues but I like building things. I'm trying to do something new that makes a statement. We're hired one of the top architects in the world. The complex will have green walls up one side, a park in the middle and 3m-wide balconies. Aucklanders are just getting their heads around this New York style of living.

12 What do you like about apartment living?

People think they need much more space than they do. Apartment living brings the family together. When we go to the beach house we don't have to worry about someone feeding the cat. When we moved out of our third-of-an-acre house in Remuera to the apartment we had to throw out shitloads of stuff. It's very liberating. I only buy online books now. You should only keep what brings you joy.

- NZ Herald

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