Dr Richard Thurlow is CEO of Waipuna Hospice and chairman of Hospice New Zealand. He's also a biochemist, DIY extraordinaire and campaigner of a "good death".

HE'S been told by his wife that he can be a bit of a bore at dinner parties.

Mostly it's because he does this "interesting thing" where he leans across the table, and asks: "Have you planned your funeral yet?"

Very few have planned their funeral, he notes.

Death is something Hospice New Zealand are keen to get Kiwis talking about.

"How we want to end," Thurlow says.

He's sitting with one leg resting on top of the other, revealing a sock that has a NEXT clothing monogram on it.

He jokingly does a swift arm-to-chair analysis, to make sure his shirt isn't clashing.

With its carpeted floors, piano, art and high ceilings, Waipuna's day services clinic in Tauranga is much like a country lodge.

On the other side of floor-to-ceiling windows, a groundsman is perfecting rural greenery on his ride-on lawnmower.

"We want people to have a good death," Thurlow says.

"And a good death is allowing you to have full-phase at the end to finish stuff off."


He's planned his own funeral, but the music playlist changes from week to week.

He loves all sorts of music, and could probably never choose the right tune.

He's thought about having Michael Buble's Feeling Good. "I'm a bit of a joker like that; I want laughter at my funeral."

Even though he has a serious job and always has (he used to be biochemist), he prefers humour.

He and his former colleagues would pop dry ice in a test tube, clip the lid, and pop it into the lab coat pocket of unsuspecting passersby.

"You see how high people jump," he says of the impending explosion.

Richard Thurlow at Waipuna Hospice 18 May 2018 The Bay of Plenty Times Photograph by John Borren
Richard Thurlow at Waipuna Hospice 18 May 2018 The Bay of Plenty Times Photograph by John Borren

He's been head of Waipuna Hospice in Te Puna for a decade, and before that was operations manager for two years.

Since April, he's been chairman of Hospice New Zealand, an organisation that exists to ensure every New Zealander has access to quality palliative care.

Death is a delicate subject, highlighted recently by coverage of 104-year-old Australian biologist David Goodall.

Goodall drew international attention to his right-to-die case, ending his life in Switzerland on May 10.

Thurlow, 49, says euthanasia is an easy subject to "skirt across the surface of", but there are a lot more shades of grey.

"There will always be people that think that their personal choice is more important than anything else, but what we want to maintain is hospices are safe places. The potential for a new change in the law to impact vulnerable patients is quite high.

"I get really sad when people say: 'I don't want to be a burden.' You're alive; you're not a burden. We're trying to allow people to live as well as they can, for as long as they can."

"There will always be people that think that their personal choice is more important than anything else, but what we want to maintain is hospices are safe places. The potential for a new change in the law to impact vulnerable patients is quite high."

He doesn't have a lot of interaction with hospice patients, other than greeting them down a corridor, but that's because of privacy.

"A really sad one for me was my neighbour came through the service and I didn't know until he passed. It was quite a shock, and I had a real dilemma at that point: Should I know? But actually, I shouldn't have known because it's private to the family."

It helps to be slightly detached. He has to do the strategic thinking and make tough calls.

An example is the sick and dying who aren't residents or citizens of New Zealand but are needing hospice care for which the district health board won't pay.

"They're hard," he says. "The ethics of it is you want to care for them."

Thurlow, who speaks quite softly, has been a Christian for 20 years. He's been on church councils in the UK, and he and counsellor wife, Helen, a recent degree graduate, attend Holy Trinity Church.

He studied at Southampton University, then went to the University of Cambridge for his PhD in neuroscience.

He worked at Pfizer in Sandwich, Kent, for 10 years before he and Helen, and their daughters, Megan and Beckie, emigrated to New Zealand in 2005, enticed by friends.

He arrived unemployed, but was quickly offered a job at Pharmac in Wellington, which he turned down to live in Tauranga.

"I just remember driving along the Desert Rd with all the sand blowing across the road, and I said to Helen: 'I just turned down this really quite a good job, and we've got nothing! So we took a real gamble."

He knew little about hospices when he started but quickly fell in love with the cause.

"Some people would say my passion gets the better of me. I'm always trying to promote the things we do. We have a real need in the world for palliative care, not just in New Zealand."

Thurlow, a qualified biochemist, knew little about hospices when he started, but quickly fell in love with the cause. Photo / John Borren
Thurlow, a qualified biochemist, knew little about hospices when he started, but quickly fell in love with the cause. Photo / John Borren

This Brit is now a staunch Kiwi - something his dad, Brian, took some warming up to.

"I think it was the first Rugby World Cup; my dad and I were on the phone and I had to fess up [about supporting the All Blacks]."

Brian jokingly threatened to write him out of his will.

Thurlow, known affectionately as "Rich", played rugby for Southampton University, and grew up in Kent.

His dad was a successful banker and mother, Jan, ignited her youngest child's passion for science by buying him the Britannica Encyclopedia series when he was 12.

He had a natural leaning towards maths and sciences and became an "exam monster". He has a photographic memory. "Which is a very strange talent I have. It's a bit rusty these days."

Talents are something Thurlow has lists of.

He's a former rower, loves tramping and wears a black tracker watch, which is visible under the cuff linked sleeve of his shirt.

He's rowed two marathons for charity, and took part in The Mount Everest Challenge, climbing the Mount 38 times in 50 days to raise money for Waipuna Hospice.

He tracked himself and posted (daily) on Facebook. "I'm a bit of a geek when it comes to gizmos and gadgets."

He's also a bit of a DIY extraordinaire. He single-handedly renovated a house over nine years while living in the UK, doing everything from the plumbing to wiring, plastering, tiling and bricklaying.

He also painted the inside of his Matua home. "I couldn't pay someone to do something I could do."

DIY is "therapeutic".

He's got a wall of tools in his garage and a foldable bench that he made, sitting alongside his home gym.

Surely, he can't be good at everything. What does he not like to do?

He laughs. "Washing up."

What's the one quality he feels best describes him?

"My wife says I'm a sledgehammer. It takes me a while to get to the top of the swing, but once I'm there, I really have to finish it off."

Living every moment is the tagline of Hospice New Zealand, and he does his best to follow through.

Last week was Hospice Awareness week, and celebrated with a "bucket list challenge".

He and Helen want to do some of the great walks of New Zealand.

"I could say drinking a nice bottle of wine ... That one would be one too."

That could be achievable in a week, I note.

"Yeah, very achievable. Definitely achievable."

He spends a lot of time looking at forecasts and statistics that the Ministry of Health put out, and some of them are quite dry, but some of them are really scary.

The number of deaths is increasing faster than our population increase. In the next 50 years, the number of deaths amenable to palliative care in the Bay is projected to increase by 85 per cent, whereas population growth will be around 34 per cent.

It's a big ask of hospice, but the community is "flippin' amazing" with their support.

Patients and families recently gave them a 98 per cent success satisfaction rating, in a family patient survey.

Thurlow would've preferred 100 per cent though. "Because we only get one chance," he says. "You can't screw it up twice at this point in life."

Centre stage at his staff meetings is a porcelain "circle of friends" candle holder, with a candle that gets lit.

Names of patients who have died in the previous fortnight are read out, and there's a moment of reflection.

Everything at the hospice is done carefully and with thought.

The "circle of friends" candle, which is lit at each staff meeting to remember hospice patients who have passed. Photo / John Borren

"We have very high expectation from people in health now. We can't promise everything, but we do our best to try and meet as many needs as possible."

Thurlow describes himself as a "fair" person who never walks out of a meeting regretting not saying something.

His favourite quote is Winston Churchill's: "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war."

"We have to be honest with ourselves and if we can't stand up and be counted when we need to be, are you really doing your job?"

His role-model in life was his grandfather, Leonard Charles (LC) or "Len".

"He was a real old-fashioned gent, who treated people with respect, wasn't afraid to speak up when he needed to, and just a really good bugger."

Thurlow wears an engraved signet ring his mum and dad gave him for his 18th birthday, and he stores a signet ring Len had, in his bedside drawer at home.

What motivates him to get out of bed each morning is "doing good".

"Having a role in the community where you can walk out the door at the end of the day and say: 'Actually, we've done some really good work'."

Waipuna Hospice is one of the beneficiaries, along with Mt Maunganui Lifeguard Service, at the Ladies Charity Luncheon, in Mount Maunganui, on June 8. The event is sponsored by Indulge and The Hits.

# Waipuna Hospice has 130 staff members and 850 volunteers
# They receive over 700 new patient referrals each year, but only a third will ever see the inside of the inpatient unit because a lot of people want to die in their own home.
# Palliative care is needs based, not diagnosis based.
# Referral criteria states a patient will receive palliative care for up to a year, but the average duration is five months, with the majority one to two months.
# At Waipuna Hospice, 44 per cent of their operating costs have to be fundraised. Thurlow named TECT and Farmer Motor Group as just two of those supporters, and of course the public. One Tauranga resident recently donated $100,000.