Obituary: A compassionate life well lived

‘‘Megawatt smile’’ . . . Dr Keren Skegg. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
‘‘Megawatt smile’’ . . . Dr Keren Skegg. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
Dr Keren Mary Skegg, Psychiatrist.

Doctor Keren Skegg had a lot on her mind near the end, but she could look back on a fulfilling life in which she helped many people who were struggling with their own mental health.

The prominent Dunedin psychiatrist was diagnosed with a bone marrow condition 20 years ago, and it eventually progressed to leukaemia.

Keren was born in Hawera on June 26, 1951, the first child of Allan and Elizabeth Cargo.

She started her schooling in Levin, but when she was 6, her family moved to Indonesia where her father was sponsored by the New Zealand government under the Colombo Plan to teach at a university in Sumatra.

By then, Keren had a brother (the late Donald) and younger sister (the late Clare).

The three years in Indonesia were a rich experience for her — there were lots of adventures in the mountains and elsewhere, and it forged a life-long fascination with different cultures and languages.

For part of her time in Indonesia, she was enrolled in the New Zealand Correspondence School.

But later, she had a very different educational experience when her family moved back to New Zealand and she continued her schooling at Manutahi Māori School in Ruatoria.

When Keren was 10, the family moved to Christchurch. She found the transition from the rural Māori community to the "buttoned-up" society of Canterbury quite difficult.

She complained to her parents that the people were "proudies", but she later came to enjoy an excellent education at Christchurch Girls’ High School.

During her teenage years, Keren enjoyed a wide range of activities, including drama and skiing, and music became a passion.

She learnt piano up to grade 8, and played double bass in the New Zealand Secondary Schools Orchestra and the National Youth Orchestra.

She also excelled academically, and in her final year, she won a university junior scholarship and came top of New Zealand in both English and biology.

Despite toying with the idea of becoming a professional musician, Keren decided to train as a doctor.

Because of her high academic achievement at secondary school, she was able to go straight into the second year at the Otago Medical School.

The fact that she was a year or more younger than the rest of her class did not seem to disadvantage her, and she was one of the tiny number who eventually graduated with MB and ChB degrees with distinction.

Lifelong partnership . . . Keren and David Skegg.
Lifelong partnership . . . Keren and David Skegg.
At the beginning of 1971, Keren met her future husband, David Skegg, at a student party in Pitt St.

It was not a random meeting. David had noticed a person at varsity with a "megawatt smile" and wanted to meet her.

A year later, they announced their engagement, and in 1973 they were married in Christchurch.

After a short honeymoon, they were both thrown into the strenuous life of house surgeons at Waikato Hospital.

A year later, Keren was selected for the psychiatry training programme in Oxford, in the United Kingdom.

At that time, Oxford was one of the two leading postgraduate centres for psychiatry in England, and there was a great deal of competition for places on the training programme there.

That year, there were 60 or so applicants, and Keren was one of the six who were chosen.

She rotated through all the major sub-specialties, learning from Anthony Storr and other international experts in their fields.

She sailed through her exams and was later elected as a Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Because Keren and David had both loved their student life in Dunedin, they were delighted to get jobs in the city and they returned to New Zealand in 1980.

Keren became a senior lecturer in the University of Otago department of psychological medicine.

It was a joint clinical position, combining clinical work in Dunedin Hospital with teaching and research in the medical school.

In the years that followed, they had two daughters — Caroline and Julia.

Family was extremely important to Keren. So much so, she worked half-time for most of her career so that she could dedicate time to her girls.

She also believed in having a work-life balance and was a keen gardener, became an avid African dancer, learned Italian and enjoyed a weekly French conversation group.

In retirement, Keren and David took up tramping, completing most of the South Island great walks, as well as multi-day walks in Italy and the English Lake District.

Intrepid soul . . . Dr Keren Skegg.
Intrepid soul . . . Dr Keren Skegg.
Over the years, Keren worked in various clinical roles, including in the outpatients department and later at the Psychiatric Day Hospital.

Keren found great satisfaction in helping people who were struggling with their mental health, although she was always aware of the momentous consequences her decisions or advice could have for them and for others.

She enjoyed teaching medical students and postgraduates, and was also convener of various working parties — one, for example, on "The Future Role of the Doctor".

Keren’s own research focused mainly on suicide and other types of self-harm.

This resulted in many publications in international journals and advisory work for the Ministry of Health.

She worked with the Dunedin City Council to reduce suicides in the city by modifying access to Dunedin landmark Lawyers Head.

Towards the end of her career, her international reputation led to her being invited to write a major review on self-harm for The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals.

But this professional recognition counted much less for her than the hundreds of patients she had been able to help over the years.

Many who came into contact with her during her work and social life said she was gifted at combining knowledge and expertise with wisdom and empathy.

Her value for friendship, her kindness, her tact, her knowledge and her wisdom were greatly valued.

Her life was very well lived and one that was a blessing to many.

Despite much discomfort, Keren showed great courage in the final stages of her illness.

Family always remained a high priority, she maintained friendships, read widely, enjoyed learning and speaking foreign languages and spent many hours gardening.

She died at home on October 31 aged 72, following a long illness. Her funeral was at Knox Church, where she had been a member for many years.

She is survived by her husband, Sir David, daughters Caroline and Julia, and two grandchildren.

— John Lewis