National treasure, the Starship children's hospital, turns 25 today

By Martin Johnston

Starship children's hospital at Auckland City Hospital. Photo / Greg Bowker
Starship children's hospital at Auckland City Hospital. Photo / Greg Bowker

Starship's birthday

• Fridayis the 25th anniversary of the opening of Starship

• Starship will be celebrating for a whole year

• See www.starshipbirthday.co.nz for the Starship Foundation guide to the celebrations and to make donations

The Starship celebrates its 25th anniversary today, after a quarter century in which a children's hospital was transformed from regional facility to national treasure.

Now no part of New Zealand is untouched by Starship, the national children's hospital, and its care for our children.

Straightforward hospital care is done close to home, but if a child needs heart surgery or other kinds of high-tech treatment, Starship, alongside Auckland City Hospital in the suburb of Grafton, is the venue.

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As the years have passed, Starship has changed, expanded, re-furbished, re-trained and above all, advanced.

"We've made great advances in survival and cures for a whole range of conditions,"
said Dr Mike Shepherd, a specialist in the Children's Emergency Department and the hospital's director of medical and community services.

"Survival from a range of oncological [cancer] conditions has improved dramatically, surgeries, transplantation, cardiac care have advanced, and bone marrow transplants for a range of conditions that are curative for cancers and complex metabolic conditions."

Vaughan Somerville, who spent much of his childhood in Starship, with Starship Foundation Patron Dame Rosie Horton in 2012. Photo / Supplied
Vaughan Somerville, who spent much of his childhood in Starship, with Starship Foundation Patron Dame Rosie Horton in 2012. Photo / Supplied

In cardiac surgery, for instance, the congenital disease called hypoplastic left heart syndrome, in which the main pumping chamber is not formed properly, was once a fatal abnormality. Now, it can be treated by surgery and most patients survive.

In 2000, New Zealand's first liver transplant into a child was performed. These operations are done at Auckland City Hospital and after surgery the patients are cared for in the Starship's paediatric intensive care unit (PICU).

Dr John Beca, the hospital's director of surgical services and the PICU's clinical director, said that as the ability to save children whose conditions were once untreatable had increased, care for these patients had become ever more complex.

Consequently the typical length of stay in the PICU has grown, although on average for the whole hospital it had remained the same because of reductions in other areas.

Around half of Starship's paediatric surgery is now done using minimally-invasive techniques such as key-hole surgery through small incisions in the skin, meaning shorter stays and much less pain and distress for children.

As the PICU became the last resort for some Kiwi kids, an air ambulance service developed from 1994.

More than 14 per cent of the patients admitted to Starship come from outside the Auckland region. But as well as children coming to Starship, Starship increasingly goes to the children: Its doctors, nurses and other staff run more than 500 outreach clinics a year at district health boards around the country, seeing patients as well as supporting and training the local staff.

But 25-year-old Starship's success and international reputation mask the rancour which marked its conception and birth.

PICU physician Dr Liz Segedin remembers the Starship's predecessor, where her specialist career began, as a lovable dump, the home of fleas, cockroaches and rats, but also a place of "wonderful camaraderie and sense of purpose".

It was in 1960 that the Auckland Hospital Board accepted the need to build a new children's facility to replace Princess Mary Hospital.

By 1981, Princess Mary Hospital had become so rundown that its staff made an appeal to the public, in a bid to pressure the Government, by placing an advertisement in the Herald that was headed: "Where we send our sick kids is the shame of Auckland".

Jane Stafford has nursed sick children for 36 years. Photo / Supplied
Jane Stafford has nursed sick children for 36 years. Photo / Supplied

The campaign for a new hospital lined up paediatric staff, who argued that children needed specialised facilities because they are physiologically different from adults, against a coalition of health officials and the medical establishment.

The Health Department approved plans for a $23 million hospital in 1983 but it was eight years before the facility would be completed, at a cost of $78 million, and opened as the Auckland Children's Hospital.

The name "Starship" was dreamed up by ad man Sir Bob Harvey and bestowed in 1992. It became a marketing magnet with the creation of the fund-raising Starship Foundation and Friends of Starship which, with the pulling power of names such as the actress Lucy Lawless, the banker Sir Ralph Norris and the charity queen Dame Rosie Horton, have successfully tapped commercial and personal donations to pay for important equipment and building re-fits, and to make health care less scary for little ones.

"It's hard to find someone in New Zealand," said foundation chief executive Brad Clark, "whose life hasn't been touched by Starship in some way; whether through family, friends, colleagues or even just hearing heartfelt stories in the community of children in Starship's care.

"We want everyone to get involved with our 25th birthday in whatever way you can. If you can give a gift of any size to Starship it would be truly appreciated and help us to look ahead to the next 25 years of caring for children at Starship."

Starship by the numbers

• 130,000 patient visits

• 300 come by air

• 1000 children are treated in the intensive care unit, including 400 cases of complex surgery

• 1000 patients are treated in the heart unit, including 400 following heart surgery

• 650 children are seen at Te Puaruruhau, the centre for child protection services
Note - numbers are approximate and per year

- NZ Herald

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