One of New Zealand's great health champions and reformers has died in a freak accident after tripping and hitting his head.

Paul Cressey, 80, served as a Counties Manukau District Health Board member for 12 years and dedicated his life to child cancer after his own son died of leukaemia.

The freak incident happened after Cressey had enjoyed lunch on Waiheke Island on Tuesday with close friends and his wife Sheryn, who he has been married to for 54 years.

His son, Mark Cressey, said doctors and nurses worked on his father for 13 hours.

Advertisement

"Not only did they allow us to have access beside him for that whole time, they never ever gave up and they did it so respectfully.

"The health professionals were just incredible."

Paul Cressey, 80, served on Counties Manukau District Health Board member for 12 years. Photo / Supplied
Paul Cressey, 80, served on Counties Manukau District Health Board member for 12 years. Photo / Supplied

In 1979 Paul Cressey's son, Carl, was diagnosed with leukaemia, which was the start of his 10-year association with the Child Cancer Foundation, including three years as chairman.

The family travelled to Australia in 1980 to get a bone-marrow transplant for Carl where they stayed in a Ronald McDonald House.

On his return to New Zealand, Cressey successfully set about getting Ronald McDonald Houses in this country.

Sheryn Cressey said the death of their son Carl, at just age 9, was the driving force behind her husband's work.

"When he died I guess we were all so heart-broken you sort of felt you needed to carry on and give back something, and Paul was like that. That's where it all started, with Carl.

"If it hadn't been for Carl I'm sure we would have just carried on as an ordinary family."

Advertisement

In 2007 Paul Cressey was honoured for services to child cancer, being made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

A humble man to the end, he only agreed to accept it on behalf of the Foundation.

"I just felt so honoured they wanted to recognise him. I'd seen all the hard work he'd put in", Sheryn Cressey said.

He never wore the medal apart from the day he was given it.

Mark Cressey said his father was proud of the medal because it represented an acknowledgement the organisation he worked for was worthy of such an honour.

But he saw it differently.

"Dad, that was New Zealand honouring you for the damn hard work, the long nights, the frustration, the doggedness, the drive, and the belief that doing what was right was important, and that was more important than the door handles on our house", Mark Cressey said.

The family was building a house at the time of the honour and didn't have a handle on their bathroom door for years, because Paul Cressey was so busy helping others.

A pharmacist by trade, he paid a locum to come in one day a week so he could focus on his charity work, unbeknown to his family.

Life Education Trust New Zealand appointed him as a trustee and then as a Life Member.

Paul Cressey was instrumental in securing more trailers to travel around the country, introducing Harold the Giraffe to more children.

He was also the Chairman of the Howick Community Menz Shed and was involved in acquiring and setting up their first shed, which is due to be opened this coming month.

Paul Cressey was a visionary, but he also had another side to him - he was quite the prankster.

His daughter Charmaine recalls the days when, on special occasions, her dad would drive her to school instead of catching the bus.

"He would make sure he stopped right on the front gate, and had great amusement in parking beside a lamp post so I couldn't open my door.

"Seeing me get more frustrated, he would inch forward and ask what the problem was knowing full well I couldn't open my door.

"Finally after begging, I would get out only to watch him in great embarrassment to proceed to bunny hop over the school crossing."

Up until Paul Cressey died, he worked on a health system product catalogue to be a single source of standardised information that hospitals and health providers could access.

Ministry of Health Data and Digital Deputy-Director General Shayne Hunter said Paul Cressey had been on a mission to do this for years.

"His energy, passion and commitment was what inspired me. He never wanted to give up", he said.

The catalogue would have been useful in Covid-19, as varying labels were used for masks resulting in some incorrect ordering of PPE.

"It's a critical part of the future of the system and optimising our supply chain and building resilience in any future pandemic," Hunter said.