Over 21 years, Sharon Wards has put her own compassionate stamp on health services in Tararua, first as community hospital manager and then as chief executive of the Tararua Health Group (THG). But at the end of June she will step away from the role, proud of what she and her team have achieved.
"This role hasn't changed me. I haven't forgotten how to feel and that's one of the reasons THG have been successful," she said.
"The past 21 years have gone in a blink of an eye and it's been a pretty good innings. What the team and I have managed to achieve in delivering health services, has been pretty special."
Wards came from the dairy industry and consulting work to her new role as manager of the Dannevirke Community Hospital on July 25 1997 while it was still under construction.
"I was asked if I'd seen an advertisement for a part time manager at the new hospital and was told managing nurses and doctors wouldn't be any different from managing scientists," she said.
Ward's son, Stuart, was just 18-months-old when she took on the role and he's now a doctor in his own right.
"I took on the part-time manager's role for six weeks and the rest is history," she said.
"More than 400 staff have gone through here and a lot have become my friends. That's the one thing which stands out, it's the people who have become part of my history.
"I've been in a role where a life can be starting at one end of a the corridor and ending at the other. It's very special and it's going to be very hard to walk away. The reason I've stayed is health is an environment which values my values."
However, Wards admitted it had been daunting at first as she walked into the controversy surrounding the closure of our hospital on the hill, at a time of protests, with the hands around our hospital campaign making national news.
"I remember the first time in front of Grey Power members," she said.
"They almost booed me off the stage. Here I was, young, not from Dannevirke and without a clinical background and they said, 'how dare I say what it was like to lose your hospital'.
"I told them I would front up again in 12 months' time. I did and received a standing ovation.
"Along with my team we turned around a community so upset at losing its hospital on the hill, to now 21 years later, we've still got a community hospital.
"My role has been about managing community expectations, asking what is the vision and being very consistent and patient in listening to the concerns of our community."
Wards said it had been a privilege to lead staff who worked so hard and committed themselves to the community.
"It's a credit to the culture so many are still working here. I always said if we look after the patients as we would our parents and grandparents, we wouldn't go wrong."
However, she admitted the past two years had been tough in the health sector regionally and locally and she had been hurt by some of the "unpleasant" stuff.
"There's been quite a bit of courage and stubbornness in this role, but I wasn't ever going to give up on this team or this community.
"I told people I wasn't a clinician, but that we were going to develop something uniquely us. I've done it my way, with a lot of people holding my hand."
At the time of its opening, the Dannevirke Community Hospital was described as an excellent example of a rural community establishing innovative partnerships with health professionals and key stakeholders ensuring essential, appropriate health services were provided in the community.
"We were and remain, innovative and we've had a huge impact on rural GP and nurse and midwife training, with a pretty big influence on people like this in our own community and in communities throughout New Zealand.
"A heap of GPs in New Zealand gained their experience and enthusiasm through our registrar's programme here in Dannevirke," Wards said.
And she understands the huge responsibility now placed on GPs' shoulders.
"The new structure will allow younger GPs to grow and not burn themselves out," she said.
"THG now has five nurse practitioners and it gives me a real sense of confidence to know this community will adapt, but the core of THG and our community hospital won't change because at the centre are people."
Sharon's exceptional skills as a recruiter have seen health professionals from around the world take up positions in Tararua.
"My mantra has been, I can fix a gap in a staff member's skill set, but I can't change attitudes. I've seen potential and have employed some really fantastic people. Rural communities rely on goodwill and expertise to create what we have in Tararua.
"The core thing is we still see people who are sick and my replacement needs to make sure we have the right staff to look after people safely and compassionately," she said.
Disconnecting from 21 years at the top of Tararua health services is going to be difficult, Wards knows.
"I'll go and hide out at the beach and my husband Simon [Curran] has a long list of jobs at the farm, such as painting the woolshed and planting trees," she said.
"But I'm not going to give away my relationships with those people special to me.
"There will be something out there, but I'm wise enough to know it will have to have a community focus - in my view that's Tararua. I'm passionate about rural and if I can have an influence on better services and outcomes . . .
"I still have a lot to give, but the time feels right to step away from here."
Tararua District mayor Tracey Collis said the community had lost a health champion.
"However, I am confident Sharon will continue to be a Connect Tararua champion and you will never take the health and care away from her work in our community," she said.
"Sharon works passionately in this area knowing as a district we need this technology for better health options in the future.
"We have been grateful for her innovation and commitment to attracting new doctors to our district when many other areas are also seeking their services."
Wards' family (Simon and children Stuart and Maggie) have been very supportive since she started talking about her resignation.
"The bottom line is they want me to be happy, but there is still another 10 years of being motivated and involved in this community," she said.
"It will be nice for Simon [a principal at accounting company MCI and Associates], and me to chill, but I'm not leaving this community."