Tauranga paediatrician, Dr Hugh Lees, is treating the children of children he looked after. He recounts a 34-year career dedicated to wellbeing of young people.

Hugh Lees has carried a silver business card holder to work every day for 12 years, but the boy who gave it to him wouldn't know.

That's the thing about being a paediatrician - most patients are treated and go home again, whereas some are seen for extended periods and leave their quiet mark.

"This was given to me by a patient who had heart surgery," Lees says, pulling from his trouser pocket, a slimline business card holder. It is worn, but still shimmery.

Advertisement

Engraved on the front reads: "In appreciation of all your help over the years." The boy's name is engraved too, but Lees is reluctant to have me share it, or divulge details about his case. Patient privacy is crucial, and Lees by nature, is "reserved".

He is clinical director of Tauranga Hospital, overseeing 350 doctors, as well as being responsible for patient safety and complaints.

But between 1984 and 2015, he was a full-time general paediatrician, and ran the Woman Child and Family Service at Tauranga Hospital for seven years, in a place bedecked in cheerful paint and hanging mobiles.

He still participates in the children's ward acute admission roster, and has up to two outpatient clinics a week; something he's opted to do.

He wears a round name badge with "Dr Hugh" positioned above ABC alphabet blocks.

Dr Hugh Lees chats with Sebastian Polomka, at Tauranga Hospital’s children's ward. Eight years ago, Sebastian and brothers, Dominik and Julian, were the first triplets to be born at Tauranga Hospital in 20 years, in the new maternity annex. Photo / Andrew Warner
Dr Hugh Lees chats with Sebastian Polomka, at Tauranga Hospital’s children's ward. Eight years ago, Sebastian and brothers, Dominik and Julian, were the first triplets to be born at Tauranga Hospital in 20 years, in the new maternity annex. Photo / Andrew Warner

Before our interview even begins, we find ourselves talking about children.

"Ah, where are we?" He's fidgeting with his cellphone. "Here," he says, satisfied. "Feeding out in the frost."

He pivots his hand to reveal a photograph of himself and his granddaughter in blue overalls, mid-stride on his Bethlehem livestock block.

"We got her matching overalls at the weekend, which she's very proud of," he says.

Lees didn't always know he wanted to be a doctor, but was influenced by a number of things, not least his own childhood illness.

At age 8 he became unwell and doctors believed he had Rheumatic Fever, but it subsequently turned out to be Osteomyelitis - an infection in the bone.

He was off school for eight weeks and labels it his most terrible life memory. As doctors grappled to diagnose him correctly, he recalls feeling frightened.

When he was at secondary school, he did well in sciences and was interested in "caring type of professional roles", and medicine seemed to be a good fit.

The family lived in Papakura, South Auckland, but Lees' father, who worked in the family Ford business, was born in Te Puke.

Lees' aunt died from diphtheria before his father was born, and is buried in Te Puke Cemetery.

"Diphtheria is a condition we no longer see, largely due to immunisation," Lees says, before adding: "I'm a strong advocate for immunisation."

He came to Tauranga from Auckland as a house officer, then a registrar from 1978-79, becoming a paediatrician in 1984 after training in London and Waikato.

He was the second paediatrician at Tauranga Hospital, joining Dr John Fleming, who became both his mentor and friend.

"When I first came here to Tauranga, my first run was paediatrics, and at that time the paediatrician was on holiday. I arrived in the ward and found that I was it more-or-less. I felt, and I got feedback, that I had an aptitude."

Dr Hugh Lees, pictured here in 2013, didn't always know he wanted to be a doctor, but was influenced by a number of things, not least his own childhood illness. Photo / Andrew Warner
Dr Hugh Lees, pictured here in 2013, didn't always know he wanted to be a doctor, but was influenced by a number of things, not least his own childhood illness. Photo / Andrew Warner

It no doubt helped that Lees is the oldest of seven children - six boys and a girl.

As a doctor, he is friendly, persistent, honest and respected. He's also quiet: "I'm not an out there sort of person," he says.

I question whether being interviewed is out of his comfort zone?

"Possibly. I'm reserved, but I think I'm someone who gets things done."

His palpable concern for his patients disarms even the toughest cases. But his childhood was very different to some of theirs.

He had a privileged background - no damp house or uncertain accommodation, which sees a lot of commonplace medical ailments in the children's ward, such as respiratory disorders.

Family is very important to him, and is what he's most grateful for in life. "I'm very proud of my wife (Dianne), who recently completed her PhD in child psychology," he says.

His most treasured memory is beach holidays with his gang of siblings. And nowadays, he loves being a grandparent "in this sort of unvetted, unbound relationship that you have."

His parents were caring and subsequently all his siblings went into "caring type roles" in adulthood.

For Lees, getting on with others is crucial to being a good paediatrician and he's learnt to move fluidly between families.

"Obviously you have to relate well with children, but you also have to relate well with their parents because, you know, no child comes in isolation.

"You do become quite attached to the children that you have long-term relationships with and I'm reaching the stage of my career now, that I'm seeing the children of children I looked after."

He has a little bit of a "paternalistic feeling" about some of them, he confides.

"You feel very connected to your current patients and the ones that you are following long-term in clinic."

The hardest part about being a doctor?

It was when he was younger, he says. He's now aged 65. He'd look at the face of a small child, flushed and sometimes struggling for breath, and picture his own at home.

"Trusting a doctor with the wellbeing of your child is probably harder than trusting them with your own health," he notes.

"It made it much more real for me."

Lees has found himself quite attached to child patients that he has long-term relationships with. Photo from 2013 / Andrew Warner
Lees has found himself quite attached to child patients that he has long-term relationships with. Photo from 2013 / Andrew Warner

His three children all had "reasonable" files in the emergency department.

"I think all of them have broken a bone at one stage or another - that's almost a rite of passage for Kiwi kids.

"My kids always grumbled that they could never throw a sickie," he chuckles.

For Lees, the number one change he's seen in child healthcare is the outcome for childhood Leukaemia. When he started in medicine, children with Leukaemia died universally.

"We would try to get them into remission, they would usually stay in remission for maybe a year or so, and then relapse, and then that was usually the beginning of a process."

Nowadays 90 per cent of children with Leukaemia are expected to survive and be long-term survivors, even though it still requires a very high burden of care.

Another condition that has had a significant improvement in outcome, is Cystic Fibrosis.

Lees also looks after these patients in the Bay of Plenty.

"From dying in their teenage years, when I first started in pediatrics, we now expect them to live into their 40s and 50s, maybe longer. Maybe the ones that I'm looking after now will have a relatively normal life expectancy."

Premature babies also have better outcomes in terms of life expectancy.

New methodology and medicine is giving patients a better chance at good health and a good future than when he began practising three decades ago.

It is a better time to be a doctor and a patient, he says of 2018.