Dr Karen Poutasi, Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, has had a long and varied career in the health sector, having held the Director General of Health role for ten years. She is currently the Commissioner of Waikato District Health Board and a board member of Interim Health New Zealand.
In 1985, while on fellowship at Harvard studying for her Masters in Health Services, Dr Poutasi flew back to New Zealand for a whirlwind visit to interview for what was to be her next role – Medical Superintendent at Middlemore Hospital.
Dr Poutasi says: "I was looking to take the next step in my career and was attracted to Middlemore because it had a reputation for being really committed to the needs of the population – and that's still true to this day."
"My extended family is Samoan, so I have a strong affiliation with the needs of South Auckland, and the Medical Superintendent role at Middlemore epitomised that."
In the two years she held the role, from 1985 to 1987, Dr Poutasi has many strong memories and achievements, including a string of "firsts", including the establishment of an outpatient clinic for children.
"That was a big thing. Before that, our South Auckland families frequently travelled to Auckland city with their tamariki. Being able to receive substantial outpatient services locally was absolutely essential for the community."
During her time in Boston studying at Harvard, Dr Poutasi observed that day stay surgery was a successful way to manage many minor operations. In 1980s New Zealand, operations required at least an overnight stay. Dr Poutasi says, "I saw day stay surgery working very well in Boston and thought, why not here too?"
So Dr Poutasi and her team got stuck in making day stay surgery at Middlemore a reality.
"There was a bit of scrambling to get everything up to scratch for opening day, but we got there, thanks to the staff at Middlemore willing to be at the forefront of change".
Dr Poutasi found the biggest challenge was getting everyone - the community, patients, and staff to understand that day stay surgery was safe and effective – something we wouldn't give a second thought to today!
As a first step into diversity, Dr Poutasi was also very proud to appoint the first Cultural Advisor so that the needs of the population could better be served. In a fitting twist, the Pacific Health team is now located in Middlemore Hospital's Poutasi Link corridor, named in her honour.
Dr Poutasi's son Api – affectionately known as "the Middlemore baby" – was born at the hospital. As the family lived on hospital grounds, Api was often ferried between the home and Dr Poutasi's office, even leaving his legacy through some toddler scribbles on the Medical superintendent's office wall.
In 1987, when Dr Poutasi left her role at Middlemore, she was presented a gift of Tukutuku panels framed in wood from an old hospital building that had been demolished.
"This generous and thoughtful gift reflected the staff and teams there. Nothing could be nicer for me as a going away gift.
"What I loved about Middlemore was the staff's unswerving focus on the local community and a willingness to be at the forefront of change – which is still true 35 years later."
Image:Dr Karen Poutasi with the Tukutuku panels she was gifted