Expert Breakfast Report for 9 August 2017: Dr Susan Heydon, School of Pharmacy

Dr Heydon, a Fellow of St Margaret’s, is a historian working as a senior lecturer in the School of Pharmacy.

How this rather unusual combination came about was revealed as the discussion developed. Life has taken her from London to Africa, Papua New Guinea, Nepal, and in the far North Island of New Zealand, and finally - perhaps! - to Dunedin.

Dr Heydon began by stressing that, no matter what work a person is involved in, a knowledge of people is important. It is very important that people are central to what you do, and especially so in the health field. She illustrated the point by asking us what we do if we had a headache. This produced a range of answers, from a medical visit if it was severe, to doing nothing, taking , taking paracetamol, or having a sleep. The purpose of the question was to illustrate that people respond differently, particularly - but not exclusively - if you consider people from different cultures. This is most obvious at the milder end of the ailment spectrum. Even at the level of a medical visit for something more serious, what people do varies, often governed by what is available to them. Rural versus urban environments are the most obvious in New Zealand.

Dr Heydon completed a BA in history in London, then, when visiting her cousin in Africa, met her future husband who was camping nearby, there because he was doing a medical elective. Not only is her husband medically qualified, but her three children are also doctors of medicine, so a good deal of the conversation at home was medically oriented. It was seeing what he was doing that sparked her interest in health in other countries, the subsequent focus of her research. Back in London, she undertook a diploma course with the Society of Apothecaries at a time when Humanities people were just beginning to have an interest in Medical History, and she was the only humanities person on the course. One of the perks of the course was that it was held on a Saturday morning in London, so she took a cheap day return ticket into town, attended the course in the morning, and shopped in the afternoon!

Susan and her husband John had the intention early on of working overseas, and they ended up in Papua New Guinea (PNG), where they spent two and a half years. The PNG government had a policy “Localisation of Positions” which decreed that, if a PNG worker was available to do a job, they should be doing it rather than an "outsider". This meant she was unable to work, but by observing and listening, she was able to gain a much broader view of what influences the history of health care. In their remote situation, often with no roads, obtaining health care was rather more of a challenge than it is to us. Even though PNG at that time, shortly after independence, had a well-structured health system very suited to the nature of the country,

From PNG they travelled to the small Northland settlement of Kaeo, where the doctor at the hospital was also the general practitioner for the area. While there was a pharmacist, when that person was away, the pharmacy work was done at the hospital. The hospital’s van also doubled as the ambulance. They worked there for six and a half years, before moving to Dunedin. It was here that Susan became a post-graduate student. Her work, focussing on health history, began as a Diploma, but was converted to a Masters degree on rural hospital services in New Zealand. What we have today is built on what we had in the past, and so looking at the history makes sense of what we have now.

Dr Heydon drew attention to the book Being Mortal by Dr Atul Gawande, a consideration of how people at the end of life are treated by the medical profession. She commented that it was so interesting “I couldn’t put it down . . . It was all about the discussions we should be having. It is about how we can live life to the fullest right to the end.” [Ed: There is now a copy in the St Margaret’s Library].

Dr Heydon and her husband worked for two years as volunteers at the small hospital Sir Edmund Hilary built near Mount Everest. They found that the western system of medicine they were offering was just one option. The different ways of thinking made the Heydons look more closely at our way of life. An interesting example was that seriously ill people did not want to go into hospital, because they wanted to die at home where they would get the best send-off for their next life, reincarnation being one of their beliefs. The history of this hospital was Susan’s PhD topic, and also led to a very readable book, a copy of which is in our library. Any medical student interested in an elective overseas could gain from reading it*.

Susan’s wide exposure to the world of medicine has assisted her understanding of the world of academic pharmacy, and played a large part in her appointment there.

In a discussion stemming from her time in PNG, Dr Heydon noted the wide differences between health systems in various countries, giving New Zealand, Australia, the USA and Britain as examples, even though one might expect them to be reasonably similar.

* Modern Medicine and International Aid by Susan Heydon, gifted to the library by Dr Peter Norris, is located in our medicine section.

Posted: Tuesday September 5, 2017