Neurological Foundation - Chair of Neurosurgery

Fundraising role came unexpectedly

February 2012

The 82-year-old spearheading the neurosurgery fundraising effort was bemused when he was asked to take the role.

Dr Brian McMahon, chairman of the fundraising committee, "immediately suspected" he was "in trouble" last year when asked to meet the then University of Otago vice-chancellor Prof Sir David Skegg, who insisted on coming to Dr McMahon's Maori Hill home, rather than meeting him at the university.

"He was very persuasive."

The straight-talking retired army doctor said it would not have occurred to him to put his hand up for it. Like any such role, it was more involved than attending events and "looking clever".

He praised "marvellous" project manager Irene Mosley, who organised the day-to-day activities of the fundraising.

The campaign aims to raise $3 million to fund a chair in neurosurgery and set up a neurosurgery research unit at the University of Otago. That person will also work as a third neurosurgeon at Dunedin Hospital.

While there was "never a good time to fundraise" and the recession made things tougher, the campaign had good momentum. Its next step was a "foray" into Southland, targeting business and community funders. A proper launch, as was held in Dunedin last month, was planned for Invercargill, Dr McMahon said.

Public donations from Southland were healthy, indicating people in that province saw the benefit of investing in a Dunedin unit. Other donations had come from outside Otago too, including the West Coast and Auckland.

In need of a new hip in 2010, when the public campaign was under way to keep neurosurgery in Dunedin, Dr McMahon waited at Dunedin Hospital on August 6 for the culmination of the 10,000 strong march which started in the Octagon. That show of feeling swayed Wellington's health bureaucracy into leaving the service in Dunedin, he believes.

Dr McMahon said staffing a specialty service like neurosurgery was fraught, and the only way to provide a service in Dunedin was building on the city's university and teaching strengths.

Many people did not realise the unique resources the city of 120,000 residents had for a place its size, he said.

Without neurosurgery, Dunedin would have lost its ability to train intensive care unit specialists, while the specialty was also important to neurology, radiology, plastic surgery, maxillofacial surgery, and other services.

The campaign was similar to previous efforts in Dunedin, when the community raised funds for a CT scanner, and a radiotherapy service, he said.

Medical advances could emerge from the neurosurgery research unit. Developments such as investigative endoscopy did not occur through "eureka" moments, but by research informed by clinical practice.

Dunedin neurosurgery was kept running through some difficult times with the help of well-known neurosurgeon Sam Bishara, a friend of Dr McMahon's. The pair were the same age, 82, and even now Mr Bishara supervised neurosurgeons at Dunedin Hospital, out of loyalty to the service, Dr McMahon said.

Dr McMahon has two sons who are surgeons (an orthopaedic surgeon in Dunedin, and a maxillofacial surgeon in Glasgow, Scotland), and once considered training as a neurosurgeon himself.

He was a surgical registrar at the Dunedin Hospital neurosurgery unit, then the national unit, in the late 1950s. However, with two or three of his five children born by then, and being an asthmatic, it was not feasible.

Instead, he accepted a general practice role in Cromwell which had a surgery component.

The Dunedin unit served the entire country except for Auckland, and was virtually an autonomous unit within the hospital.

It was a "brilliant place to work", Dr McMahon said.

Clinical staff worked through busy periods for days and nights on end, and then took a break in quiet times, before the strictures of proper rosters, and managers clamping down on overtime.

Surgery training was different then, as its practitioners were nearly all war veterans, and encouraged a practical, hands-on approach from young doctors.

Dr McMahon, who is RSA's Anzac of the Year, joined the army in the 1960s. His service included time in Vietnam and Malaysia. He also spent two years in the British Army at the Royal Army Medical College in London.

In Vietnam, he practised what he said the Americans called "meat-ball surgery", on gunshot and mine injuries.

Returning to his hometown in 1984, it was as if he had never been away. Dunedin was a city that did not change as other places did, he said.

Dr McMahon has given $10,000 of his own money to the campaign.

To give, visit a branch of ANZ or National Bank; any queries contact Irene Mosley on 477-4837 or 027-277-5631.