Children's health and welfare paramount for this 'stepped back' paediatrician with a hatred for injustice


"Never forget your working class origins . . . "the first 1000 days of a child's life are crucial . . . "invest in parenting not prisons."

Three maxims Johan Morreau has lived by and championed, one flowing from the other throughout the life of this recently "stepped back" paediatrician for whom teamwork is his byword.

"Stepped back?" It's his definition of retirement. The former president of Australasia's Royal College of Physicians and chairman of its child health division may no longer be at the helm of Rotorua Hospital's paediatric team but children's health and welfare remain paramount.

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As well as "doctoring" in his specialist field he spent 11 years as the hospital's chief medical officer and in 2017 became an elected DHB member.

"I put my hand up because of what I saw as unfinished business addressing major community health and welfare issues."

He gave specialist evidence at inquests into the horrific deaths of Nia Glassie and Moko Rangitoheriri and is a staunch advocate of the Government's child health policy.

In 2008 he was made a member of the Order of Merit for his services to community health.

That's an impressive list of achievements by any standard but dump visions of Johan Morreau being one of those hard-to-talk-to medical heavyweights.

He's about as casual as they come, chatting to Our People in bare feet, cargo pants and T-shirt.

Doing what he likes when and how he likes is one of his "stepping back" pleasures.

After an adult lifetime in medicine, frequently working longer hours than junior doctors are now striking over (something he declines to comment on), he's a person who's earned his "me time" yet retains his community connections.

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He's a Brainwave Trust trustee, chairman of the NZ Vietnam Health Trust and on the veterans' cricket board.

Sport runs a close second to his commitment to children. Ironically it was rugby that fostered his medical career.

"I had a back injury playing rugby in the Tawa College 1st XV, a specialist said I wouldn't play again, I went to med school to prove I'd be a better orthopaedic surgeon than him."

Along the way he switched to paediatrics.

That's the broad brush outline of this father of three, grandfather of seven.

We could write in depth about his views on the vicious cycle of child poverty and New Zealand's horrendous abuse stats but his dedication to addressing these harsh realities speak for themselves. His TED talk is a master class on the subject.

The starting point of the personal picture those brush strokes frame is that opening quote about never forgetting his working class roots.

"My maternal grandfather taught me that. He was a woollen mill worker who became deputy director general of the BBC . . . the first person to take me to a pub."

Of mixed heritage, his mother English, his father Dutch, the young Morreau spent time in the UK, Holland and Hong Kong where his father was a banker.

"When I was 7 we came here [New Zealand] settling in Dunedin because Dad decided to become a Presbyterian minister."

Once trained, the family moved around, giving Johan a wide-spread education.

His med student enrolment coincided with the height of the anti Vietnam War demonstrations.

"I was what Phil Goff calls himself, a careful rebel, I hate injustice".

He was a HART (Halt All Racist Tours) supporter protesting against the 1981 Springbok tour, not placard waving but in the medical squad tending the injured.

"The violence made me ashamed to be a New Zealander."

During his final two med school years he spent time in the Himalayas with Sir Edmund Hillary's aid programme.

He was a house surgeon at National Women's Hospital when he met wife-to-be Karen, cleaning there during university holidays.

"We've been together 45 years, she's a wonderful team mate."

Married life began with a trip to South America.

"Karen was desperate to go, I wanted to return to the Himalayas, my love for her won out, we covered a lot of countries staying in $1 a night accommodation, brothels included, walking the Machu Picchu trail when it was a track, hacking through vegetation."

In Quito, the protester in him drew him to a "massive" demonstration.

"I joined for the experience, there were thousands involved, posters of Che Guevara everywhere, we converged on the government headquarters where this long line of police had their rifles pointed at us, I sidled off."

A high point was a month on a yacht cruising the Galapagos Islands.

"Our guide's brother was of one of the Eagles, we've been massive Eagles fans since."

The couple arrived in the UK in 1977. Johan's first posting was Bristol Children's Hospital.

"That's where I realised I'd rather do paediatrics than look after adults, it's intellectually challenging, every aspect of medicine's represented."

A hospital in south Wales followed. "Welsh language schools introduced me to the kōhanga reo concept."

Watching helplessly as Welsh children died from whooping cough, he became a fervent immunisation advocate.

"Because of immunisation I've seen a wide range of fatal conditions disappear."

He joined London's Barnet Hospital "often working 80-90 hour weeks".

When the Morreaus moved on it was to India and Nepal, "our first child was conceived there".

Back in Auckland Johan began his specialist study.

"Again the hours were punishing, the exams the most difficult I've ever done."

A Samoan colleague suggested he take his skills there. "I was the only paediatrician in Western Samoa."

Next stop Rotorua.

"I wanted our kids to grow up where they'd be comfortable in Maori and European worlds. We came here in 1984, ostensibly for a year or two, have stayed for the duration, our daughter was born here."

Throughout our chat his wife's name and the role she's played in his life are rarely off his lips.

"There's no way I could have worked the way I have without Karen because she was such a good mother, kept our kids' lives stable.

"There was a time we were so short staffed I worked seven weeks without a day off, there was no choice, we couldn't have the maternity unit closing down, Karen was absolutely critical in that period, it was very stressful, I got asthma.

"That situation's in the past, our hospital now attracts quality doctors, it was having that quality team that's allowed me to step back."

JOHAN MORREAU MNZM
Born: Orpington UK, 1952 "seven weeks premature."

Education: Overseas, Maori Hill Primary Southland, Rosedale Intermediate, James Hargest High, Invercargill, Tawa College, Auckland University Medical School

Family: Wife Karen, sons Luke and Ben (Auckland), daughter Nina (Wellington), seven grandchildren

Interests: Family, sport. "One of the reasons I didn't want to be employed any more." Has played in New Zealand over-60s cricket team in Australia, rowing - "I have a couple of skiffs". For past 15 years has taught in Vietnam hospitals. Reading (non-fiction), gardening.

On Rotorua: "It gets in your DNA, we have the best example in the country of Māori and European working well together."

On his life: "I'm incredibly fortunate to have had access into so many people's lives."

Personal philosophy: "Find something you like, become good at it and help the people around you."