Neurological Foundation - Chair of Neurosurgery

Campaign with a view

March 2012

Last week, 55 walkers with Southland and Otago connections took part in the Milford Track Brain Week Walk, which raised $110,000 for the Chair in Neurosurgery campaign. Southland Times reporter Gwyneth Hyndman joined them for the highs and lows of the finest walk in the world. 

I have an interview planned with Milford Track walker and Gore law practice manager Yvonne Bannerman some time in the next hour, about neurological services in the south, reaching the $3 million mark to sustain the service at Dunedin Hospital, and her thoughts on the Chair in Neurosurgery campaign that has brought each of us here for different reasons – but now doesn't seem like the right time.

We are staring up at Sutherland Falls, after dumping our packs below and making the 45-minute side trip to get to this view. For a few moments we watch the water cascade down, the sound thundering through the valley. Our heads are as far back as they can go looking up. We are in awe.

Then behind us, Dipton farmer Peter Menlove comes roaring up the path, dumps his pack, asks if any of us were going for a swim like we had promised. Who promised, Mrs Bannerman asks, teasingly.

There are a few of us lingering around at the edges who look at the power tearing up the still pool at the bottom of the 580-metre waterfall. Everything about taking a dip looks painful, cold, uncomfortable, and fate-tempting.

We've just conquered Mackinnon Pass, and most of us are ready to return to the warm, fire-lit lounge at Quinton Lodge, fresh-baked muffins, and a choice of tea, coffee, and miso soup, followed by hot showers and a glass of wine before a three-course dinner. A swim? Now? Here?

Mr Menlove strips off to his undies and launches himself into the water, as the mist of the falls comes billowing at him. He disappears under the water, then rises up, shaking it out of his eyes. Moments later he is kicking his feet madly in the frigid pool.

Mrs Bannerman, who underwent neurosurgery at Dunedin after a head injury in 2005, has backed the campaign to keep the neurosurgery unit at Dunedin in 2010 and the latest campaign to bring in a Chair of Neurosurgery to head up the Southern service. Reaching the $3 million mark to sustain this position – regardless of future changes in government funding – is important to her.


But like many of the 55 Southland and Otago walkers on the Brain Week Walk with a personal connection to the Southern Neurosurgery unit, it is a win-win when a donation to the campaign will also get a southerner a chance to tick an item off the bucket list – a term that is used at least four times during introductions on the first night at Glade House. Watching a friend brave the spray of the highest waterfall in New Zealand for an icy swim is the kind of moment that should find its way into every campaign, she believes.

Later, by the fire, surrounded by laughter and wine being poured, Mrs Bannerman talks a little bit about her own experience with the neurosurgical service and her theory of how fundraising should work: "I've always maintained it should be fun. I've always tried to take the `d' out of it. I like to think of it as fun-raising, more than just raising funds.

"The neurosurgery unit is something I'm passionate about. As Southlanders we can't lose it."

For Mrs Bannerman and her friends, the Milford Track wasn't a tough sell.

"I can't believe that so few New Zealanders walk this. This is always been something I have wanted to do – I've always said that you don't have to leave [New Zealand] to find places like this. It is pretty unique."

Obviously this "fun-raising" theory is working quite well for us as Southland Times and Otago Daily Times health reporters who are trailing the group through one of the world's most scenic walks with cameras and notepads.

For four wild days this is our workplace. We could, for example, interview Dr Brian McMahon, chairman of the fundraising committee for Southern neurosurgery by phone or in a conference room.

But how cool instead to talk about raising money to complete the planned integrated South Island Neurological service after he has flown in by helicopter to the Pompolona Hut, landed like a rock star along with Ultimate Hikes co-owner Mike Davies and general manager Noel Saxon to show off the cheque for $110,000 to which each walker's $2000 fee for the guided trip contributed.

After Dr McMahon thanks the group for their contribution and the Davies family for their generosity in donating the full fee back to the campaign (he addresses us in the lounge where we are all sprawled, stuffed with the famous Pompolona scones with cream and jam, surrounded by windows that look out to the peaks and rivers and the moss-covered forest below), campaign manager Irene Mosley updates the group on funds raised to date – the latest number flown in with Dr McMahon: $1,718,260.

So far 27 applicants have come forward for the Chair in Neurosurgery position, she says. All the applicants are from overseas. The Chair will join the neurosurgical team at Dunedin Hospital – part of the greater South Island Neurological Service – and will also be conducting research at the Otago Medical School.

Not only would this begin to tackle the shortage in skills predicted in the next 10 to 15 years, but it would attract more investment in research and raise the profile of neurosurgery, neurosciences and neurological disease.

For Invercargill woman Marilyn Adams, the campaign also raises awareness of wide range of reasons for having the neurosurgical services at Dunedin Hospital.

Two years ago, her older brother Greg suffered a double stroke and spent two weeks at ICIS in Dunedin.

"It was horrendous for the family at the time." Later during his recovery, staff worked with him so that he was better able to understand his injuries. "I have also nursed for 32 years and I know how important it is not to lose that service here."

While everyone seems to mention the opportunity to do the walk for the campaign, several walkers also had special connections to the Milford Track.

Francis Bell, of Invercargill, and her sister, Mary Watson, carried copies of the diary of their grandfather, Herbert Price, who walked the Milford Track in 1904.

Their mother would later walk the track in 1948. Both of their names were in the guest books that are still kept at each of the lodges.

"We had been talking about doing this our whole lives," Mrs Bell says.

"We knew we would some day, we just needed a reason. At the top we were saying that it was amazing that our mum and grandfather had walked these same paths."