Dr Lance O’Sullivan has made it his dream to change the world from the Far North. But, as Greg Dixon discovers, first he had to change himself.
To know the son, we must know something of the father.
And it turns out Bill*, who will be 86 in October, was an old mate of Lance O'Sullivan's old man. "He was hard case," Bill says in his sing-songy voice. "He said to me once when we were drinking - we used to drink, you know - he said 'my son's a doctor'. I said 'what did you say there?' He said 'my son is a doctor'. I said 'well if he's a doctor, then my son must be Prime Minister. My son is the Prime Minister if your son is a doctor! He was a hard case, man. It took me a while to believe him."
O'Sullivan smiles as he listens. This story about his late father, which makes Bill's wife and daughter giggle too, has of course been told as we all sit together in a surgery at O'Sullivan's Kaitaia medical clinic. It comes after a long discussion O'Sullivan has had with the family about Bill's ailments, about how many pills he must take and when; and would someone in their whanau make sure he's taking them with his dinner?
So of course O'Sullivan, the son of a meat-worker called Eddy Watene who liked a drink but never seemed to have much time for his boy, really is a medicine man. And of course Bill, who once couldn't believe his ears, is now a patient of the Watene boy who became a doctor.
And not just any doctor. If Bill once thought it fantasy that his mate's boy had gone into medicine, the son's rise to national prominence over the last few years has something of a fairy tale quality to it too. Since launching Te Kohanga Whakaora clinic just two years ago - it's been controversial for the apparent outrage of treating sick people even when they can't afford to pay - O'Sullivan's been recognised with a legion of honours. In 2013 he was acknowledged as an emerging leader by the Sir Peter Blake Trust, was named a public health champion by the Public Health Association, was made Maori of the Year and, in early 2014, he was voted the Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year. Prior to the election last year, he was being courted by at least two political parties. He was even named by the Reader's Digest as the second-most-trusted New Zealander; he was pipped for the top spot by Victoria Cross winner Willie Apiata.
And now, O'Sullivan has published a book about his life, his work and his philosophies, a book from which he won't see a cent, because all royalties are going to a charity, the Moko Foundation, that he and his wife Tracy created to support high-needs families and communities.
It may hardly seem credible now that there was a time when people thought it unlikely that Eddy Watene's boy would amount to much, a time when, if anything, it seemed certain young Lance O'Sullivan would probably end up doing a bit of jail time like his old man.
But that was then.
"It could be anyone's story."
O'Sullivan is driving us along State Highway 1, through the flat, anonymous farmland north of Kaitaia to his home, a modest brick place with a lovely view of tiny Lake Ngatu. It's a Thursday lunchtime, and he's got what's left of an hour between the clinic's morning and afternoon onslaught to make the 30km round trip home, eat and get back.
"It could be anyone's story," he says again. "The thing that drives me is ... that I hope in some small way this book helps others."
This, in the end, is O'Sullivan's reason for writing The Good Doctor, a book which, while it ends happily enough and offers up the 42-year-old's already quite extraordinary life as inspirational parable, is certainly full of his sorrows, too. When he was contacted by Penguin, the book's publishers, a year ago in the wake of all those awards, he at first baulked at the idea. He didn't have the time, was already working 70-hour weeks and although only three of he and Tracy's seven kids are now at home, family life was still huge.
"And I don't sort of covet all of this publicity. Sometimes I feel I've got something I want to add to the world so I talk about it, sometimes it feels like a burden. Besides, I thought, how much do people really want to hear from me? And there is nothing more public than baring all for an autobiography."
Over dinner at his home that night, his mother, Marlene O'Sullivan, who lives in a caravan out the back of his and Tracy's home - she loves it, she says - confides to me that she, too, was worried about her son sharing his - and her - story. But in the end it was she and Tracy who convinced O'Sullivan to do the book.
"My mum and wife had a long chat about the fact that we could create something that could inspire people, inspire young people from maybe vulnerable backgrounds. I might inspire other people to help those vulnerable young people, too, and be part of building a great country. I believe now that I have that capability ... so that was why we went there."
And "there" is a place that appears, in many ways, to begin and end with Eddy Watene.
"My father was an alcoholic," O'Sullivan writes. "Alcohol shaped his life, made him violent and incapable of being a good husband and father. In turn, his life shaped my own."
Marlene was 18 years old, Pakeha and not long out of Catholic boarding school when, at a party in Timaru, she met Eddy, a "charming, handsome" Maori working his way around the country, freezing works by freezing works. They couldn't have been from more different worlds. Born near Thames, Watene was one of 18 kids from a family "quite well known in the criminal world". She was from church-going Canterbury farming stock, though she was rebellious, too, and had already dropped out of nursing training.
The couple began going out, but they didn't marry. A girl, Nikki, was born to them when Marlene was 21 and, two years and 10 months later, Lance was born at National Women's in Auckland. But the relationship would last only a few more years.
"Mum didn't want to leave," O'Sullivan says now. "It was her friend who came one night and said, 'You've got to leave [Eddy]. Your daughter, who is 5, was up until 2 this morning serving alcohol to her father and all his mates.' It was a risky situation. That's Uncle Bully all over the place. He was getting rough with us, there was violence to [Mum]. But she wouldn't have left him [without her friend's help]."
It was, he concedes probably for the best. But what if Marlene hadn't left, what would his life have been?
"I would have been a wife-beater and I would have been in jail," he says without hesitation.
As it was, he became an angry young man.
Despite his mother's best efforts - and Marlene made all kinds of sacrifices for her kids - by the time he reached high school, O'Sullivan seemed destined for failure. There was rage, he says, partly because of his absent father, but also because the school system had decided he was trouble.
Marlene says at one point a well-meaning teacher told her: "I don't like to say it but I think your son is a slow learner." She was appalled.
"I tried not to laugh in her face," she tells me, "because she was sincere and I didn't want to offend. But I never for a moment thought he was any such thing. I thought, well, probably the system didn't suit him, which it didn't."
In fact the system wanted rid of him. He was expelled from Pakuranga College in his second year. Next he was sent, with help from Marlene's parents, to Timaru Boys' High and was expelled from there two months later for fighting.
"I was worried," he says now. "Things were going down real fast and real quick. I didn't think there was a future. Everything was pretty blurry then. I was destined to be a 'course kid'; you know those kids, you ask them what you're doing and they look blankly at you and go 'I'm doing a course' and you ask them to explain it and they can't explain it because it's 'a course'. That's what I would have been."
Instead where he went next changed his life. Hato Petera, in Northcote, was established in 1928 to teach young Maori, including Sir Ranginui Walker and Ralph Hotere, to imbue them with the Catholic faith, but also - and more importantly for the 15-year-old O'Sullivan - to teach them tikanga Maori values too. The school, of which he is now a board member, was the first place he'd been surrounded by positive Maori men. There was an epiphany.
"Do you know what it was? It was a moment in time at the school when I got told I was 'good', I got told I was 'smart'. I got told 'you could do things' - I'd never been told that. And I'd never been in a situation where I could feel proud about myself and be proud of being a young Maori half-caste kid with slightly darker skin than the kids in the neighbourhood and a really white skin compared to all the cuzzies.
"It was 'hey, your culture isn't skin-thick. Your culture is flowing through your veins and you just have to learn about it.' Powerful, powerful moment.
"To be honest, it was probably what I'd been searching for my whole life."
He hasn't made success look easy. He got into the University of Auckland's medical school on the second try - but only after he'd dropped out of a science degree, ended up working for Customs and become a father at just 21.
Indeed, as he writes in The Good Doctor, even once he was at med school it was far from smooth, with him taking a year out at one point. He and Tracy, by then married, had three more kids during his training too. Tracy had fallen pregnant just three months after they met, and he admits they had to do a lot of work on their relationship in those first five years.
"Failure had been a real option for me," he writes. "There were times, so many times I could have just walked away from medical school simply because I didn't believe in myself and my ability to do well."
In the end he graduated from his final year with an A-minus and became one of an incredibly small number of Maori doctors. Although Maori are 15 per cent of the population and - shockingly - make up 30 per cent of the sick population, just 2.9 per cent of doctors are Maori. He found general practice was what suited him best, first in Rotorua and then in Kaitaia, but he had not thought of putting out his own shingle until 2012 when he and the Maori health provider he worked for in Kaitaia, Te Hauora O Te Hiku O Te Ika, had a major falling-out.
"I was a doctor," he tells me over lunch in Auckland a couple weeks after my visit up north.
"I was trained in general practice and had the opportunity to use that to help people in my community who needed it. The structure I was in didn't allow that to happen. It was based on our terms, not the patient's terms. I'd been saying for a long time that it's wrong and we need to flip it on its head. They wouldn't listen, so I went out and opened our own practice.
"I never had any ambitions for a business at all, now we employ 25 staff. It's huge."
He opened the door of his clinic, Te Kohanga Whakaora (The Nest of Wellness), in 2012 in some rented rooms at Kaitaia Hospital. It's a family affair with Marlene and Tracy both working with him and it has, he agrees, been the making of him. More importantly, its organising principle is putting patients first: in the morning it is a walk-in clinic, in the afternoon there are appointments. His fees are lower than other clinics - and inability to pay doesn't bar the sick from treatment.
He also launched a programme that sees staff from the clinic visiting primary schools in the Kaitaia area three times a week to detect illnesses such as strep throat, which can lead to rheumatic fever, a major problem in Far North kids from poorer backgrounds. The clinic, with expertise from a tech company, has also created an iPad app used to photograph and remotely diagnose skin infections, which are also more common in the North. O'Sullivan believes this innovation has huge potential nationally and internationally.
"There are many barriers to healthcare - socio-economic, cultural, geographic," O'Sullivan says. "With innovation and leadership we are doing our best to find ways of overcoming them."
His father died last October as O'Sullivan was writing The Good Doctor with Auckland journalist Margie Thomson. Eddy Watene had been living in Australia for years, but O'Sullivan says he made sure he'd kept in touch. "I never stopped trying to reach out to my dad," he writes. "I was always giving him the opportunity to be the father I wanted him to be."
Watene never took that chance. Living in Australia, he missed seeing O'Sullivan's family growing up, missed seeing O'Sullivan send two of his kids to Hato Petera, missed seeing the two eldest also pursue medical school and careers as doctors.
It is probably an overstatement to suggest that part of O'Sullivan's motivation for his approach to medicine and trying to boost public health for Maori in the Far North springs from seeing his father ruin his own life and health with alcohol. But when I put it to him this might be the case, he agrees it's an interesting point.
"I probably haven't unravelled fully how that influences me. I've been through this quite a bit with my wife. So, yeah, I know there was a significant psychological impact from the relationship with my dad, both in terms of what I experienced and what I didn't experience."
Even close to death, his father was difficult. Diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus, Watene decided to return to New Zealand. Not to Kaitaia or Auckland, but to Palmerston North.
"My sister Nikki and I were gutted. We were like, 'You're not just denying us, you're denying your grandchildren.'"
Eventually love and forgiveness won through, and his father agreed to be flown from Palmerston North, in a charter plane with a private nurse, to Auckland. Father and son were able to share a closeness they hadn't had for all of O'Sullivan's life.
"It was probably the most authentic time I ha
d with him, the last couple of days of his life. I am really happy because I can look back on that rather than if I'd said, 'Stuff you, I'm staying in Kaitaia with my kids.' But also I looked at my dad not as a man who was bitter and nasty. I looked at him as man who was the product of his upbringing. And the effect of colonisation. He was one of 18 kids, they starved, they witnessed beatings, they were subjected to beatings. The beatings were the product of being absolutely dispossessed. So that allowed me to look at him not as a perpetrator of harm and hurt but rather a victim. But it took 35 years."
* Note: not his real name.
The Good Doctor
by Lance O'Sullivan with Margie Thomson (Penguin $38) is out now.
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