September 21, 2008

Widely Revered Medical Chief

By CREAN, Mike

Many health professionals remember Ross Fairgray with affection.

As Medical Superintendent of Christchurch Hospital, Fairgray "went the extra mile" to make staff feel valued. When junior staff arrived from overseas, he met them at the airport, brought them home for dinner, helped them settle into their flats, ensuring they had everything they needed.

His son, Dr Andrew Fairgray, says his father was considerate towards others and totally without pretension.

The former GP, obstetrician and anaesthetist who became an outstanding health administrator died in Christchurch recently. He was 79.

Fairgray was born and raised in Auckland. He attended Mount Albert Grammar School and Auckland University, before completing his medical studies at Otago University. He graduated in 1954 and became a resident medical officer at Tauranga Hospital in the Bay of Plenty.

He married Iris Brown and they settled in Tauranga, a place they both loved. They had four children.

Daughter Liz says her mother was an academic and noted sportswoman whose dedication to her husband made his career possible.

After two years at the Tauranga Hospital, Fairgray went into general practice in the town. He worked also in obstetrics and anaesthesia. His son says he was a popular family doctor and enjoyed the work. However, he had difficulty saying "no" to anyone and his workload became too much. "He wore himself out."

He took a lesson from a fellow GP and close friend who died at 40 from overwork. He returned to Otago University in 1967 and completed a Diploma in Public Health, which qualified him for hospital administration.

The family then moved to Auckland, where Fairgray took the position of Deputy Medical Superintendent at Middlemore Hospital. He won the keenly sought post of Medical Superintendent at Christchurch Hospital in 1969 and the family made its last move.

Fairgray led the medical sector of public health in Canterbury for the next 20 years, until his retirement in 1989. These were decades of major change, with the rebuilding of Christchurch Hospital and the restructuring of administration, from the North Canterbury Hospital Board to the Canterbury Area Health Board, and with the rising influence of non-medical managers.

His titles changed with the restructuring. His responsibilities encompassed management of Christchurch Hospital, including medical officers' appointments and duties and patient care services, and overseeing all Canterbury public hospitals.

Liz says her father addressed an acute shortage of house surgeons on his arrival in Christchurch by writing to every medical school in the Commonwealth, extolling the virtues of the city. Many new staff arrived in subsequent years.

Medical Staff Association chairwoman Ruth Spearing said in a eulogy that his personal kindness helped Canterbury retain staff and there was no further shortage.

He had a major role in developing "the most collegial group of hospitals in New Zealand".

Pat Cotter, of the Medical History Trust, says Fairgray was "a very good doctor, a really nice guy and an outstanding manager".

He always knew exactly how the hospitals were functioning because "he spoke to the cleaners".

Liz says this reflected her father's strong Christian beliefs and "Leftish" politics.

"He loathed injustice and inequality." He was a strong proponent of women's rights, she says.

He was a firm believer in a publicly provided health system. His inability to offer services he saw as "desirable" for patients, because of budget restrictions, frustrated him. He agonised over conflicting calls for funding.

Andrew says his father was a mentor to many. People frequently visited in the evenings to discuss work and non-work matters and seek his advice. He was astute and "no pushover" for anyone trying to put one across him.

"He was no socialite but he had an incredible number of loyal friends," Andrew says.

Fairgray turned down a plum position in national health administration, in Wellington, because his family was happy in Christchurch. Liz says he was devoted to wife and family. Even when his kidney disease made him so weak he could barely stand, he travelled to watch his grandchildren play hockey.

Illness was cruel to a man who had been so active. He was a prominent cross-country runner in his youth and always a keen walker. He remained a member of a walking group until recent years. He enjoyed sailing and often crewed in yacht races around Banks Peninsula. He took up skiing at 50.

He loved his garden and for many years rose each day at 6am, working for two hours among his 200 rosebushes, then riding his bike from home, in Fendalton, to the hospital. ---Mike Crean


Ross Alexander Fairgray, born Auckland, December 14, 1928; died Christchurch, September 3, 2008. Survived by wife Iris, daughters Susan, Elizabeth and Helen, son Andrew, and eight grandchildren.


(c) 2008 Press, The; Christchurch, New Zealand. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.