Doctor by day, writer by night, a thinker at heart

By Martin Johnston

He's a doctor who writes novels in his spare time. He teaches writing, is developing a cosmetics range and doing a PhD. Now heading off to be a keynote speaker at an Irish literary festival, is Sharad Paul New Zealand's busiest man, asks Martin Johnston.

Sharad Paul - doctor, thinker, unwilling revolutionary - has a corner of a room, surrounded by shelves of books, where he spends the last hours of most evenings writing, researching and mulling over new ideas.

"I am in a corridor but have made a nice nook for myself, so others can sleep in bedrooms and I can write away," says the 50-year-old, who lives with his wife and elderly parents.

With a brain that seems incapable of rest, this machine of a man who doctors or teaches by day, has penned seven books, mostly by night, and has three more in press.

And that literary output, of novels, popular science, a medical textbook and even a book of poems about melanoma, is building yet another side to this Renaissance Man as he is invited to speak at literary festivals - Auckland, Jaipur in India and now the Dalkey Book Festival in Ireland this month.

"In Jaipur, Stephen Fry said to me, medicine is not for you. I realised he thought I was just writing books and never worked in medicine," says Paul, who comes from an extended family of doctors.

The festival at Dalkey - the birthplace of George Bernard Shaw - has attracted such big names as Malcolm Gladwell, Sir Michael Gambon and Sir Bob Geldof.

At Dalkey, Paul will speak at sessions on ageing and death, the rise of India and Skin, a Biography, his popular science book about his specialist area.

Except he is not the usual kind of specialist in the Kiwi sense of the word, such as a plastic surgeon or a dermatologist. He is registered with the Medical Council as a GP.

He came to New Zealand in 1991 with an Indian medical degree and training in general and plastic surgery, heading for a hospital plastic-surgery training position here. When he arrived, he found it had gone.

He pressed on with his skin work, becoming an acknowledged international expert on skin cancer. He has put this skill to use at his Blockhouse Bay clinic, where Paul does skin-cancer checks on thousands of patients a year at no charge to them or the state and performs affordable skin-cancer surgery.

Sharad Paul performs free skin-cancer checks from his clinic in Auckland's Blockhouse Bay. Photo / Michael Craig
Sharad Paul performs free skin-cancer checks from his clinic in Auckland's Blockhouse Bay. Photo / Michael Craig

He is a fellow of the transtasman Skin Cancer College, lectures at the Auckland and Queensland universities, has co-authored a textbook on it, and was recently appointed Auckland University of Technology adjunct professor in health and design.

Paul relishes contact with the famous, naming among his friends X-Men actor Hugh Jackman and the National Health Service England chairman, former Otago lad Sir Malcolm Grant.

"My life takes me all over the world and lets me meet so many different people in different walks of life. I had this email from Hugh Jackman, who is a friend. He said: 'Hope you are well. You are literally the busiest person I know and I include Barack Obama'."

Born in England, Paul moved to India at 5 with his parents, both doctors who became medical missionaries. He describes this altruistic medical heritage in typically self-deprecating terms.

"Philosophically I think my parents screwed me up. They were doctors in the NHS and could have had a comfortable enough existence but decided to go back to India where our roots were to do medical mission work.

"We were so remote that part of my junior school I went to school in a bullock cart."

Paul has a master's degree in law and ethics and is honoured with several public awards. He is visibly proud of his work and his philanthropy.

He also calls himself a "misfit" - his free skin checks have caused professional jealousy by drawing attention to the high prices charged for skin work.

People think I'm on some sort of [campaign]. I'm not. I'm just doing my work.

He is wary of talking about it as he does not consider himself an activist and simply wants to get on with the work he loves.

But he does see problems with the private sector's fee-setting systems for surgery and advocates a return to old-style public hospital waiting lists, even if two years long, so those without means have at least some chance of treatment.

In an article on compassion and charity, former health and disability commissioner Professor Ron Paterson wrote of the "fierce resistance" Paul faced from surgeons and dermatologists.

"Doctors who provide high-quality, charitable services may be ostracised by colleagues who have different motivations."

In 2012, when Paul Ockelford was chairman of the Medical Association, its highest honour, the annual Chair's Award, was made to Paul.

In the same year he was a finalist for New Zealander of the Year. "His achievements are remarkable and remarkably varied," Ockelford said at the time.

In his acceptance speech, Paul told his peers that despite his plastic surgery training and having written national guidelines on skin lesion management, "being vocationally registered as a GP in New Zealand and holding operating rights as a surgical consultant in a public hospital made me an irksome misfit in our compartmentalised medical system".

He recalls Ockelford's phone call to tell him of the award came out of the blue - and he thought it was a complaint.

"When they rang me I was totally gobsmacked because I thought they were ringing to say, 'Listen, you've made a statement saying this and we don't like the outcome'. I was overwhelmed."

Paul has learned of other doctors' high prices when patients have used his free checks for a second opinion. They had been told a mole needed to be removed, yet Paul found it was benign and could safely remain.

"There's a massive variation in costs. Just to get a simple mole removed can vary from $150 to $5000. People think I'm on some sort of [campaign]. I'm not.

"I'm just doing my work. You probably could be much wealthier if you practise like that, but I feel bad for that kind of practice because I don't think you are any happier for it.

"I don't believe you get good health outcomes yourself because I don't think the stress is worth it."

Actor Hugh Jackson reckons Paul is the busiest person he knows.  Photo / Michael Craig
Actor Hugh Jackson reckons Paul is the busiest person he knows. Photo / Michael Craig

Asked if he has been ostracised, he says, "I think so. It could be because of the sheer volumes [of patients he sees] and the fact that I have developed an international reputation in teaching in this area and I have the American text-book on skin cancer. I'm co-author of it."

The association's chairman, Dr Stephen Child, became concerned about excessive charging after Paul showed him examples.

"Excess charging is unprofessional," says Child, who, with other medical leaders is developing a code of conduct to root out the problem.

"I strongly believe it is [a tiny] minority of doctors - maybe 2 to 3 per cent. The vast majority are altruistic and care for their patients' interests above their own."

Paul, whose wife, Sunita, is a geriatrician at the Counties Manukau District Health Board, has previously said he would discourage his daughter Natasha, 19, from a medical career because of the profession's politics, greed and jealousy. She has branched out and is in the second year of a dentistry degree.

For eight years, Paul owned the chic, award-winning Baci Lounge bookstore and cafe in Newmarket, which offered an eclectic and generally highbrow range of reading.

He channelled profits into his creative writing programme for children and says it was also a "sneaky way of getting cheaper books".

But its time had passed so he closed the venture. "People started eating more and reading less. I call it fat guts and skinny brain. In fact, in my new book there's a chapter called skinny brains and fat guts.

My life takes me all over the world and lets me meet so many different people in different walks of life.

"And then the lease kept going higher. We were already paying about $84,000 and they were going to put it up.

"Effectively that meant you wouldn't make any profit, so the question is why would you continue when the lease had expired. I suppose I could have moved the store which I did consider because it broke my heart at the time.

"By that time, the cafe was where you made the profit, not the books, because people had started buying off Amazon. As an independent we didn't have big buying margins like a chain, so in a chain you get much better deals than us, you are really making wafer-thin margins.

"The name Baci was associated with other things that I do, so I couldn't just sell it."

Those other things are a range of cosmetics being developed at his lab in Los Angeles and his children's creative writing programme, which takes him into schools in low-income areas about 30 times a year in the hope that he can "instil some self-belief" in the kids.

"We teach them to craft their own stories and we work off movies they like. It helps them to construct their thoughts.

Kayla Shaw last year earned an iPad for herself and $5000 of books for the school library as an 8-year-old from Puni Primary School in Pukekohe when she won the Baci annual short story competition with her tale of deranged, headless Barbie dolls.

Puni principal Haydon Brill says employing Paul's ideas had helped. "I think it made writing accessible and engaging, more fun."

Paul likes all kinds of writing, although he admits to finding writing textbooks tedious because of the need to reference every sentence. He likes fiction "because you can be totally free and I think fundamentally I like telling stories".

He describes his forthcoming popular science book as being about evolutionary biology, migration, fat metabolism and the interaction of genes and the environment: "genes, geography and grub".

And his latest novel, Solomon Chinook Salmon, about salmon fishing and a possibly autistic child, is the "Jonathan Livingston Seagull of fish, except it's longer and more literary".

Paul heads to the Dalkey festival this week. And surely after that he could take a break? "I'm completing my PhD in skin cancer at the University of Queensland. I'm just finishing my thesis. Now I've finished the research, there are a couple of original surgical devices I have developed as a result of it."

- Herald on Sunday

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter


© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 27 Oct 2016 11:54:48 Processing Time: 827ms