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'It's all about the lifestyle'

General surgeon and gastro oesophageal specialist Peter Stiven talks to The Gisborne Herald’s Kim Parkinson about why he chose to work and live in Gisborne.

General surgeon and gastro oesophageal specialist Peter Stiven said it’s a misconception that good doctors go to big centres.

After being accepted to do advanced training by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, he spent a year in Hawke’s Bay.

“That’s how I got to know about Gisborne.”

He and his Timaru-born wife came to Gisborne for a friend and fellow surgeon’s wedding, and it was suggested he come back and check out Gisborne Hospital.

So with an open mind, he came for an informal interview.

“The minute I stepped off the plane I had this feeling about Gisborne — a very positive feeling — and walking down the street and interacting casually with passersby I realised that this was much more home to me than any of the metropolitan places I’ve been in recently like Christchurch, Melbourne and Sydney.

“It reminded me of the South — people are a little bit more down to earth, a little bit more connected to community and to their food as well.

A keen hunter, Peter loves the outdoors and returns regularly to the South Island where he was born and raised.

“I’ve got a strong hunter-gatherer philosophy. I like my vege garden, I like my fruit trees and I like getting meat for the table,” he says.

“I like being able to source food — it usually tastes better. I like that connection to my food, knowing where it comes from.”

Born and raised in Tekapo, his parents were both primary school teachers.

“I spent most of my teenage years in Cromwell in Central Otago and went to medical school in Otago.

“I didn’t go straight to university. I worked on an orchard for a year. My attitude wasn’t aligned with further education at that stage. I would’ve wasted my year if I hadn’t gone to work so it was very good for me.”

By 24 years of age, he was a first-year house surgeon in Christchurch.

“I did my clinical years in Christchurch and really liked surgery so went down the surgical pathway.”

He then got invited to do the advanced training programme and spent a year in Hawke’s Bay.

“We’d had a year in Hawke’s Bay and really enjoyed the climate and the beach and thought Gisborne would be similar but I had never actually been to Gisborne.

“While I was agonising about what I was going to do with my career — after I’d done all this fancy training — I realised I didn’t really want to work in a big centre.

“I had a year working in the Austin Hospital in Melbourne and a year at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney.

“After all that hard work it was time to actually lift my head up and look around and say ‘where is the right place for me and my family’ and Gisborne is it.

“It’s about the lifestyle.”

He and his family have lived in Gisborne for five years now.

Most of his work is in the public health system but he also does private consultation and works at Chelsea Hospital. If people decide to go private it offers them more flexibilty, says Peter.

“You can pick your surgeon and you can pick your operating date. You can get things done a lot quicker but the end treatment should be the same.”

One of his greatest achievements in Tairawhiti has been the establishment of bariatric or weight-loss surgery here.

He said the statistics were staggering with approximately 3500 morbidly obese, type 2 diabetics in the region who would benefit from weight-loss surgery.

“It’s the epidemic of the 21st century.”

As one of the key people in setting up the bariatric service for Gisborne, he said before that patients would have to travel to Waikato Hosptial.

“We are aiming to do 12 operations a year.”

Bariatric surgery reduces the size of the stomach and makes patients feel full he explains. After a successful operation people still have a very good quality of life and can enjoy the food they eat.

Peter would like to see changes in public policy and supports the implementation of fat and sugar taxes.

“Obesity is set to take over smoking as the leading cause of preventable early death in the western world. In some countries it has already overtaken smoking. The growth rate of obesity is out of control.”

Specialising in upper gastrointestinal surgery, he also does standard operations like endoscopies, hernias, removal of skin cancers, as well as bowel cancer and gall bladder surgery.

“I think we do a very good job of providing a healthcare service for our population in Tairawhiti. I have some pretty grateful patients and that’s why I do it.”

He said he keeps a little box of thank-you cards from patients.

“When I have a bad day, I go through those.”

GREAT SOUTHERN MAN: Surgeon Peter Stiven loves being in nature and is a keen hunter. He is pictured here with a Tahr he shot in the Southern Alps overlooking Lake Pukaki. “Tahr are considered a major threat to the ecosystems in these alpine areas — the meat also tastes fantastic,” he said. Picture supplied