Thomas finally says farewell to NZ?

Date published
28 May 2016

The lure of the great outdoors and the open road were amongst the attractions that brought American doctor Thomas Flower to work as a locum in New Zealand – time and time again.

Fishing and riding Harley Davidsons were right at the top of Thomas’s list – and the friendliness of the locals was not far behind - not to mention the experience of working in rural general practices here.

The 69-year-old doctor recently returned to the US after his fifth working visit to this country since 2010, courtesy of NZLocums. His first posting was to Marton.

Over the time the Colorado-based GP has worked in a variety of New Zealand locations including Gore, Patea, Whakatane and Picton. Before leaving New Zealand for “the last time”, on February 14 this year, Thomas was in Katikati, a town he had never visited before. That was his swang song. “My friends say they have heard the same story about five times.” However, Thomas assures me this is his final trip here and that perhaps it is time to “hang up his boots” as a doctor. “I’m probably not likely to come back.”

Regardless, he says he will always cherish memories of his visits here. One of his favourite spots is Stratford, tied to his long relationship with motorbikes – namely Harley Davidsons. He has a friend in Stratford who loans him a Harley when he visits – “a no-brainer really”, says Thomas. His love of bikes goes back many years, since the 1970s in fact, over that time he’s ridden mainly BSAs and Harleys.
Of New Zealand, Thomas says Gore, near the bottom of the South Island is another favourite spot on his list of destinations - especially for its fly fishing, another love of Thomas’s.

Being open to people has led Thomas to many of his most memorable experiences. His philosophy on life is that it’s a journey, by which he means, “why sit at home and eat dinner when you can be out meeting people”. That’s how he got to go fishing in New Zealand.

“It’s the welcoming nature of New Zealanders towards strangers that has been noticeable – both patients and people in general. I’ve been invited to dinner and … to go fishing through talking to people and taking an interest in them.”

Some of his philosophy to new places and strangers also comes down to a movie called “Yes man” about a guy who challenges himself to say “yes” to everything. “If anyone asks me to do something I say ‘yes’ as long as it’s not harmful to me.”

He applies the same philosophy to the medical centres he has worked in. “A new place is challenging and fun. You only have a short time to become functional [in a practice] which is hard. Staff have been great and have always helped me through when confronted by new things and systems.

"I have been amazed by the kindness of the patients and how much they appreciate having a stranger look after them.”

Thomas was initially referred to NZLocums by a friend who had used the recruitment service, which he says, hugely assisted him to prepare for work in this country. “They (NZLocums) have been wonderful and have helped me so much. Their orientation programme, which covers a range of topics including ACC, Inland Revenue, Medtech, Pharmac and cultural content, has assisted me greatly in coming to grips with working here.”

Thomas rates the New Zealand health system as “great”. “I wouldn’t mind seeing something like ACC introduced back home. It’s a pretty good system and although it can be abused, overall it works well. Patients don’t have to sue someone to get their health needs taken care of.”

Another big difference between New Zealand and the US, says Thomas, is doctors here saying, “I’m sorry you are not better. It’s not that you are saying that you caused an outcome but you are saying ‘let’s see what we can do to make you better’.” Doctors here are better in this respect, he says.

He has observed that five illnesses are more common here than in the US: Celiac Disease, Polymyalgia rheumatica, Asthma, Thyroid disease and skin cancer.

“Asthma is huge in New Zealand, possibly due to lots of pollens and nice weather, and skin cancer rates are high perhaps because New Zealand is a nation of the great outdoors and historically sun protection has not been well practised.”

He has also diagnosed a couple of “unusual” conditions here: Leptospirosis and orf for example. A patient he saw with blistery skin lesions suggested the condition might be orf, “so I looked it up” [on the internet], which assisted his diagnosis of the human orf virus, a zoonotic infection transmitted to humans through contact with an infected animal or object. While he warns against self-diagnosis, the internet is valuable as a resource for some data and illustration, he adds.