Born in Ireland, raised in Southern Africa and a convert to the Kiwi lifestyle, the Bay of Plenty District Health Board's new chief executive draws from a deep well of a life spent caring for the sick and disadvantaged.

Helen Mason's chatty efficiency took over from the moment I stepped into her converted bright airy office far removed from the modern edifices to health popping up around her in the grounds of Tauranga Hospital.

I am really excited about keeping people well in the community and supporting them to do that.


One side of her office opened to a sunny courtyard, lending an almost savanna quality to an office unspoiled by sterile air conditioning. The warmth was actually nice. She was a little surprised when I suggested that it seemed an untypical office for a chief executive responsible for a $700 million-a-year operation employing 3000 people.

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Mrs Mason takes over the reins from retiring Phil Cammish in circumstances unusual for health board CEO replacements - she was appointed from within the organisation.

Her holistic attitude to delivering health services, combined with a deep knowledge of what makes the organisation and the Bay tick, makes it unlikely she will be brandishing a big broom.

Mrs Mason's official career in health started at age 13 when she joined St John, but her earliest memories were hanging out with nurses in her mother's African clinic.

Everything about her life lends sincerity to words that could easily be construed in others as sounding idealistic or politically correct. When she told hospital staff last week that they had a unique opportunity to build on the solid foundation left by Mr Cammish, you sensed that staff had better believe it.

Mrs Mason told them that to improve community health they had to really understand what mattered to patients, patients' families and their communities. It was not about asking patients "what's the matter with you" but to understand what mattered to them.

She cited no better source of inspiration than her own mother who nursed for 57 years and raised three daughters in council housing as a single mother.

"She instilled her passion for making a difference in us, we have all nursed."

Sister Liz was now a nurse specialist at Auckland's Starship Hospital while sister Jenny became a medical physicist.

Her life in the Bay of Plenty began 19 years ago when she arrived with husband Max and infant son Mungo. She was deeply grateful to Yvonne Best who opened the first door by taking her on as a health care assistant at Matua Life Care. Although over-qualified for the job, she made it clear she was willing to take on any role in order to get to know the system and the people within it.

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A year later she was working at Tauranga Hospital and displaying a work ethic that would take her to the top of the organisation. While it was easy to say she was embedded in the health system, she rejects the usual connotations that went with the word bureaucracy. "I see everyone as being really important to the delivery of health services."

Mrs Mason said everyone played a vital role and not just those at the coalface in the hospital wards.

Last year injected a new perspective into her professional development when she won the Harkness Fellowship and spent a year in Boston studying America's health system and doing research. It spurred husband Max to do something life changing. He resigned his job as manager of the Bob Owens Retirement Village and spent six months walking the gruelling 3500km Appalachian Trail down the eastern side of the US. He is now on a six-month contract with Tauranga's economic development agency Priority One to re-energise its business attraction programme.

Mrs Mason said the fellowship was a fabulous opportunity to research a subject largely overlooked in New Zealand but which was vitally important, particularly with the baby boomer bulge moving through the population. It was all about end-of-life care, something usually talked about negatively but which she felt had many positives. Mrs Mason said people needed to think about the end of their lives and what would be important to them once they were unable to make decisions for themselves.

"It is a very difficult conversation, but we are getting a bit better at talking about it in New Zealand."

Another of her passions was an integrated service that identified those in most need in the community and took a multi-agency approach to help their lives - from children to the elderly.

"I am really excited about keeping people well in the community and supporting them to do that," she said.

Mrs Mason said childhood obesity was a big concern and it would be a priority next year, with the hospital now practising what it preached and replacing sugary soft drinks with water. The cafe's only concession to the past was that it still sold juices, but in small portions.

Staff were also encouraged to "walk the talk" on the importance of exercise to a healthy life. She bikes to work if she knew she was in the office all day and the board was entering three teams in the Oxfam Trail Walking Challenge across distances of 50km and 100km - something she was looking forward to.