Dunedin-based GP and writer Lucy O’Hagan spoke with Jenny Rankine.
Lucy identifies as Pākehā, descended from “many generations of Irish Catholic peasants”. Her father was the first in the family to go to university, working first as a GP and then as a respiratory physician. “I was born in Winton in Southland – Dad was a GP there when I was born. Then we moved to Invercargill and later to Christchurch.”
She describes her dad as “quietly radical – his response to the Cartwright Inquiry was to invite Sandra Coney down to speak to senior doctors in Christchurch”.
Lucy was in the 1983 medical class that was the first at the University of Otago Medical School to be half women. When she and a friend became the first female doctors in a Wanaka practice, female GPs were still uncommon and people rang the practice to check that they wrote prescriptions.
Lucy worked as a GP in Wanaka for 20 years. There she joined a women’s theatre group called Flatout Productions; “we probably put on a production a year for seven years, with professional directors”. They included Jo Randerson and Stuart Devenie among others; “they taught us a lot.”
“With Jo we workshopped our own adaptation of MacBeth, called Witches over Wanaka”, which run during the Festival of Colour, the major arts festival for the southern lakes area.
Then she joined another group of three in Wanaka, Silk Tent, who wanted to create a theatre piece about self-mutilation. One of them, an artist called Lizzi Yates, became Lucy’s best friend – “that’s how we met. We got a grant to create a multimedia theatre piece, Girl with no words. People came up to us in the street after they read about the grant, and we had some amazing conversations with people about their lived experience of self-harm.”
“The three of us collaborated on the narrative, and I played the main character. The play included Lizzi’s projected images, music, and projected mini-documentaries of experts – a psychiatrist, a sociologist, an anthropologist and a service user, who were all our mates acting.”
“It was received really well, opening a College of GPs conference in Wellington, and playing in Auckland, Wanaka, Queenstown and Clyde.”
“People’s response to mental distress is interesting – cutting makes people want to step away. For others it’s like testimony, people respond with their own story.”
“I was in a relationship with a man for 28 years and we had two children, and about five years ago I fell in love with Lizzi. It was a really tricky situation, because she was married. I’d separated from my husband before it ever occurred to me.”
“It took me a long time to tell her, and then I read a book on moral philosophy to see if it was okay to break up someone else’s marriage,” she laughs. “Apparently it comes down to whether you’d be okay with someone doing it to you in the same circumstances.”
“Telling Lizzi was quite difficult – I thought she wouldn’t be into that at all and I’d lose my best friend, but it didn’t turn out that way. She separated from her husband. We both lived in Wanaka and we were quite well known in the community. What fascinates me is that people didn’t tell us their reactions to it, although we did hear that it was the talk of the bridge club!”
The relationship was “not an issue for my family at all. I emailed my mother that I was with my partner. She was 83 then, and she immediately rang and left a message saying how marvellous, and she couldn’t imagine a lovelier woman for me to be with.” [Lizzi and Lucy are pictured dressed for a nephew’s 21st.]
“I have a gay son and a sister who has been in a lesbian relationship for 25 years. And the father of their two children is in a gay relationship. My children in Wanaka also had surrogate grandmothers who were a lesbian couple.”
Lucy and Lizzi “bought a house together, and have lived happily ever since. It’s quite different going into a relationship with someone who’s been your best friend for five years – I think it makes it a bit easier.”
However, the relationship changes took their toll. “I got burnt out after breaking up my relationship, falling in love, her leaving her relationship – it was a full-on few years working through all that, including the kids. It was quite important for both of us to preserve relationships with previous partners, but that was quite hard. I was a practice owner, which is a big job. General practice takes a lot of energy and if you have a lot going on in your life, you can’t do it. But the culture of medicine is pushing on through. I should have taken three months off after my separation, but that’s not the culture. Doctors just keep going when they’re sick or under pressure.”
Lucy has since talked about burnout at conferences and in articles. “I think doctors are quite worried about being shamed. For me being burnt out had a lot of shame and failure about it, which was worse than the burnout. It took me quite a long time to dismantle that shame.” The photo below is of Lucy at work a week before she burnt out.
“Doctors are trained through humiliation. For example, when you’re a med student on a ward round, the teachers interrogate students to the limit of the student’s knowledge and then ask one more question to humiliate them. When I describe that scenario to doctors, they all know what I mean.
I think doctors are ashamed by not knowing something, or not coping with pressure, or making a mistake, or getting emotional.”
“Telling people that you’ve been burnt out gives other people permission to tell their story too. It’s amazing the people who come up after a talk and tell their story, when you’d never have that conversation otherwise.”
Two years ago, Lucy and the family moved to Dunedin, where Lucy teaches in the College of General Practice courses for postgraduate students. She also works at Ngai Tahu’s Mataora, “a low-cost medical clinic in Dunedin. I also work an afternoon a week at a free GP clinic at the needle exchange service in Dunedin. I like being a fringe dweller on the edges of medicine. It’s not hard because medicine’s pretty conservative.”
“At Mataora, sixty percent of the patients are Māori or Pacific, whereas Wanaka was one percent Māori. It’s profoundly different because in Wanaka, people are relatively affluent, whereas here I’m face to face with poverty. It’s a lovely workplace – both Mataora and the needle exchange have a very good kaupapa of caring for people.”
“We see a lot of people with significant mental distress and traumatic memory. When you have that with poverty, it’s pretty difficult. When I did the Girl with no words I became interested in the effect of childhood trauma and abuse on adults.”
“It’s astounding to me the lack of support people have, there are a few services out there but most people with mental distress or trauma and poverty are pretty isolated. People are amazing, they have incredible strengths.”
Lucy gained a certificate in Narrative Practice in Boston, which is part of a programme in narrative medicine. “Narrative is a theoretical way of looking at therapy or ethics or medicine through story. It gives you a different lens for thinking about what you’re doing.”
“Medicine is very much about taking a history, making a diagnosis and offering treatment. It sometimes works quite well, but there’s a few problems, especially when there isn’t a diagnosis, or there’s no treatment, or if the surgery doesn’t make people better.”
“Psychiatry tends to be more interested in people’s diagnosis than their story. You can think of illness as a disruption to someone’s story; your role is to help them move their story to a different place. People have to make some meaning from cancer or major medical problems.”
When I asked about the future, Lucy said, “I’m probably going to write a book about being a doctor, based around fictionalised stories from general practice. From feedback on presentations I’ve done, I sense a real thirst among medical audiences for books that get them thinking differently about their practice.” [She’s pictured above with the couple’s three children.]
When asked about her sexual identity, Lucy says, “I don’t really like labels. My kids go, ‘Oh mum, you can’t be binary about it’. I haven’t had a need to put a label on it, but a lot of other people, particularly heterosexuals, feel a need to label me. They call me lesbian because I’m in a relationship with a woman.”
“It feels like an odd question, because I can’t imagine being in a relationship with anyone else, male or female. I don’t know how it will evolve. I appreciate that I’m in quite a privileged position, with a family that’s very open, and at a time in history where it was relatively easy.”
“If I’d fallen in love with my best friend in Wanaka 30 years ago it would have been a very different story – labelling myself would have been necessary. I really appreciate the older women who’ve gone before us who made it possible for me to come out quite easily.”
“Having said all that about not needing the label lesbian, we both found it fantastic spending the weekend with a group of lesbians [at the Australasian Lesbian Medical Association], because there was a certain freedom in it. It was beautiful seeing people being in their own skin and not posturing and adjusting themselves. It was fun. It makes you realise how much you monitor yourself in a heterosexual world, how self-conscious you are. It’s subtle, you’re not totally aware of it until you’re not in that world.”
“They were incredibly welcoming; it was incredible being in a group with that much warmth towards each other. I don’t spend a lot of time at event where there are only lesbians, it was quite an experience to do that.”
Ōpōtiki Deputy Mayor Lyn Riesterer has a long chat with Jenny Rankine.
Lyn has lived in many parts of Aotearoa. She was born in Invercargill when her Pākehā dad was general manager of the YMCA for seven years. The family moved to Auckland and then Ōpōtiki, where she went to high school. She played five sports at regional representative level in Auckland, Manawatu and Canterbury – hockey, volleyball, soccer, cricket and she played in the first women’s rugby representative game (Manawatu vs Hawkes Bay in 1980; Lyn’s on the left). Later she became a hockey umpire and a PE teacher in Palmerston North, Christchurch (below), London and Ōpōtiki from 1981 to 2002.
Lyn’s mother has whakapapa from Whakatōhea, one of three iwi around Ōpōtiki, and Lyn says she was brought up Pākehā. “Mum was of the generation that was punished for speaking in te reo at school, and we only spoke English at home.” Ōpōtiki College didn’t offer Māori as a subject when Lyn was there; instead she learnt French.
“I’ve taken a year of te reo lessons, but learning a language is very difficult for me,” she says. She feels that she has “absorbed a lot of tikanga since moving to Ōpōtiki”.
Local body politics
Lyn was the third in her family involved in local body politics. Her dad was Mayor of the Ōpōtiki District Council for 12 years. Her middle brother Bryan was also a district councillor and former Bay of Plenty Regional Councillor, while her older brother Graeme is chair of their Ngāti Patumoana hapū and of the Whakatōhea Pre-settlement Claims Trust.
“When I’d been back home for seven years, I had a conversation with my dad about there being a place for more women as well as Māori on the council. His reply was that I hadn’t been home for long enough.”
“Dad mentored John Forbes (the current mayor) and John put my training wheels on,” says Lyn. She stood for the council in 2013, receiving the second-highest vote count of 547 in her ward.
“I stood because I felt I had a strong woman’s voice and there was only one other woman out of seven. In 2013 two Māori women stood at the same time and we both got in. We’re not quiet women, we speak up,” she says. In 2013 was the first time the council has been half Māori and half female – “there’s no other council like it. The CEO, who’s a woman, says it’s made such a difference”.
Lyn is pictured on the right in Port Lincoln, South Australia, with some of her colleagues in a 2014 visit investigating aquaculture.
In 2016 Lyn was re-elected unopposed, and in 2017, she resigned her job as Gateway Co-ordinator for Ōpōtiki College, helping students with career choices and arranging training and work experience.
Unlike the bigger centres, local body councillors in Ōpōtiki are “independent, not aligned to political parties”. The mayor picks their deputy and Forbes picked her after that election.
“It’s a very robust group, we don’t always agree but we respect each other and work very well together.” The population of the council region is around 60 percent Māori, she says.
All members of the Coast Community Board are currently Māori, she says. The board territory stretches from Opape to Cape Runaway, across Ngai Tai and Te Whānau ā Apanui areas, and is the only board in the council region.
We asked about her opinion of Māori wards, which were voted down in a Whakatane District Council referendum in February by 55 percent against to 44 percent in favour.
Lyn pointed out that the decision was much closer than the previous vote in 2007, when 70 percent of participating voters were against the idea. “That showed that more people saw the need to hear a Māori voice.” She’s ambivalent about the idea of Māori wards.
“It’s really important for an iwi voice to be listened to, but it’s also really important for Māori to stand as council members. The proportion who vote in council elections is very low, although in Ōpōtiki the proportion is higher. Down the East Coast the proportion is very, very low, but we still get Māori on the community board.”
“It’s really shocking when a council recognises the need for a Māori voice and people have read very racist voices. The rhetoric can be quite hateful; it shows who’s in your communities in their best and worst light. It’s a numbers game – Māori are in the minority – but I think things will change.”
“I wanted to be involved in the harbour development. That’s what’s so exciting about aquaculture – Whakatohea has a mussel farm and the council is working on a harbour transformation to get a river port for mussel barges.”
Lyn is a member of the Ohiwa Harbour Implementation Forum, and is a voluntary member on the Whakatohea environment committee. “The iwi and the council are working side by side for economic development.”
“I’ve always stood up for what I felt was the best decision for the community – even if I’m arguing from a minority viewpoint and trying to change the consensus. “When we’re given a problem to solve I like looking at all the arguments for and against. I like reading the reports.”
She gives the example of rubbish collection. The council consulted on a contentious 10-year waste collection plan, about how much would be recycled and how much would go to landfill. “We were collecting recyclables in plastic bags on the kerb, which were always getting ripped open.”
“The council philosophy was zero waste, but most councillors wanted to stick with the status quo. I argued against that and changed their minds. So we’re using compostable bags for recycling and changing to small wheelie bins in 2020.
Ōpōtiki is unique because the “rate take is very small because there is so much Department of Conservation estate”, almost 60 percent. Much Māori-owned land is non-productive and doesn’t pay rates, and some landowners get rates remissions to enable them develop it economically.
Lyn plans to stand for the mayoralty in 2019, as John Forbes has said he won’t stand again. “I’ll be campaigning on the continuity of good leadership.” Lyn says her sexual identity “wasn’t an issue when I stood for council, it’s never been. Maybe when I stand for mayor.”
Lyn knew she loved women when she first fell in love at 22. She came out to her whānau in the 80s when she was 26, living with an Australian woman in Christchurch, “and my parents were coming to stay. All of my friends said not to do it but I wrote to them saying that we weren’t just friends. I’d never lied, but I felt that this was part of my life I wasn’t being completely honest about with my family.”
“The New Zealand Hockey Association paid for me to train as an umpire in the Netherlands and during my three months there I popped across to England. I met my previous partner, fell in love and lived there from 1989.”
“I got very homesick and came back in 1999 to see if we could live here. She couldn’t and I knew I had to stay. I’d had a long time away and I felt my family didn’t know me as an adult.”
“I broke off the relationship, and then I met Kate. I thought it was very unfair of the gods that I fell for another English woman. Kate was leaving the country in early 2000 and I asked if she’d live with me here.”
“It never bothered my brothers; mum and dad had parental objections quite different from each other. It wasn’t an issue until I moved back to Ōpōtiki, where dad was still mayor. I asked him whether it would be a problem.”
“My parents are very supportive, mum in a very private way. Mum said that nobody needed to know, but that wasn’t going to happen.”
“In Ōpōtiki people notice that you’re a couple. Students would ask ‘Hey Miss, is she your partner?’” They just wanted to know, Lyn says, and it wasn’t an issue with students. “Kids on the supermarket checkout have seen us buying groceries together for 19 years.”
The pair ran the Driftwood Dreamers business for six years until the 2010 economic recession, offering “soft adventures” tours for small groups of women around Aotearoa. Lyn was the guide and driver – “great job, loved it” – and Kate was administrator and webmistress.
“It made a huge difference to the whānau when we had our civil union 12 years ago. The civil union was overwhelmingly supported by locals. We had a celebration dinner at the marae, and asked the college kapa haka group to cater as a fundraiser. The deputy principal asked all the parents first and got unanimous agreement. They did a powhiri for guests and kapa haka items – it was a huge thrill for the Pākehā half of the family who hadn’t been on a marae.”
Kate gets Lyn to fill in the backstory. “The Ngāti Patumoana marae, Waiaua, was booked in January for the April event, but 12 days before the chair of the trust said that we couldn’t hold it there because ‘people like you’ shouldn’t get married. The marae committee disagreed, but he made a unilateral decision. I pushed him until he banned us.”
“I whakapapa to several marae in Ōpōtiki and approached Opape – they said yes and were very supportive. The Tuesday before the civil union, the New Zealand Human Rights Commission were meeting on that marae, and the chair thanked the hapū for hosting them and noted that they were making history by being the first marae to host a same-sex civil union.”
Lyn says that Opape was one of the few marae where the whare nui (meeting house) is named after a female ancestor, Muriwai. “It ended up being the right fit.”
“We were very hurt and angry by the refusal of Waiaua”. Kate adds: “Lyn couldn’t be the person she was on her turangawaewae.”
Lyn says: “That hurt wasn’t acknowledged for some time. It took us a long time to go back to Waiaua – we used to help out in the kitchen with our cousins. A lot of cousins from that marae had to decide if they’d come to the ceremony – some did, some didn’t.”
Kate is a self-employed graphic designer, with years of experience in London publishing firms, and is involved in several Ōpōtiki area arts organisations, including Arts on Tour as well as the Motu Challenge committee, organising a multisports event.
Lyn was a New Zealand board member for the AFS for eight years. “We hosted two daughters in 2016, one from the Netherlands and one from Quebec, a wonderful experience”, Lyn says. The pair “always have people to stay”, including many members of Kate’s family and lots of Workaways (a work for accommodation scheme), who help her in the garden.
For some years they have satisfied their taste for comedy by running an annual spoof of the stereotype of a Country Women’s Institute garden party for women friends (no kids or partners), complete with frocks and handbags and a different theme each year. One of their friends calls it a service for women in the area.
To kick things off, Kate plays the bossy, megalomaniac president, Felicity Fotherington-Farquarhar, and Lyn plays the sidekick secretary, who changes each year. Kate says: “We make complete tits of ourselves at the beginning to create an environment for women to let their hair down and play silly buggers.”
Photo of Church St, Opotiki by Ulrich Lange, from Wikipedia.