Neurosurgery purpose and pride

Wow. What an achievement. The communities of Otago and Southland can collectively pat themselves on the back for raising $3 million for neurosurgery. What might easily have seemed an overly ambitious target has been reached.

It emerged in 2009 and 2010 that the South faced losing its neurosurgery service. With Canterbury interests and Canterbury surgeons at the forefront, the specialty would be excised from Dunedin Hospital. Rather than four surgeons based in Christchurch and two in Dunedin, the plan was for six and zero. Otago and Southland would be bereft of a life-saving service.

Dunedin Hospital and the Dunedin School of Medicine would be downgraded, particularly in neurosurgery and trauma treatment. Neuroscience, a strength at the University of Otago, would be among the related specialties detrimentally affected.

The Otago Daily Times on July 24, 2010, started the campaign "It's a no-brainer: Neurosurgery - keep it here", well aware of what we all had to lose. Emergency travel to Christchurch imperilled patients' safety, families faced additional emotional strain and financial costs and deep medical and community concerns were apparent. The sheer injustice of it all rankled.

Momentum gathered quickly. By early August that year, this newspaper joined with the Southland Times to launch a petition calling on Health Minister Tony Ryall to retain neurosurgery services in Dunedin. Within two weeks, the editors of the papers had 40,000 signatures to present to Parliament.

Everyone among the up to 10,000 who marched from the Octagon will forever remember the intent and camaraderie in the Dunedin demonstration of solidarity and protest. The hospital was surrounded in a symbolic embrace of mobilised citizens.

Emotion ran high, too, among the 1000 people at the town hall meeting, hearing stories like that from Lianne Latta, of Owaka, whose 8-month-old son with a brain tumour might never have survived a trip to Christchurch.

After an anxious period awaiting the verdict of the Government-appointed expert panel, there was much relief when its findings were made and then confirmed.

Dunedin's neurosurgery presence would be upgraded to three, with a strong academic emphasis.

But the job was not completed.

An fresh and prolonged push was required to secure a strong future for neurosurgery. On January 21 this year, the Otago Daily Times and Southland Times, with ANZ bank support, joined forces to launch a campaign to raise $3 million to set up an endowment fund for a chair in neurosurgery, a key element in the Dunedin hub of the South Island neurosurgery service.

The money would underpin the position and make us less vulnerable to any changes in government policy. Without the academic element, the South has insufficient population for three neurosurgeons.

The fund received a flying start and by the end of the first week totalled more than $1 million. As the year has passed, the massive target came closer. Each last dollar went towards the $3 million because campaign overheads were met by business and organisational partnerships. While corporates, foundations and trusts gave the tally a good push along, vital as well were the $10 donations, the concerts, the art shows, the dinners.

In districts like Clinton or Lawrence, the response was extraordinary. Further events are planned into early next year, which will give the endowment fund just that much extra freeboard.

Special mention should be made of fundraiser Irene Mosley.

She and her team - under the Neurological Foundation chairmanship of Dr Brian McMahon - have provided the energy and skill without which the campaign might well have stuttered. Fundraising, never easy, is especially difficult these days.

But, as Mrs Mosley is the first to acknowledge, it is we, the people and organisations of Otago and Southland who backed our desire to retain the service with money. We rallied with spirit and determination at the unfairness of losing an essential service. And then we rallied again, sustaining fundraising efforts across 12 months.

At a time where disengagement and apathy are increasingly commonplace, we demonstrated resolve, purpose and pride.