Cheers Maria to our good health

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The Wakatipu Health Trust has fought for better healthcare for years – now it’s being wound up. Celia Williams reports

Nine years ago an American man staying at Queenstowner Maria Cole’s home had a massive stroke at the dinner table. 

Naturally, Cole dialled emergency services and an ambulance quickly arrived to rush him to Lakes District Hospital. 

The head paramedic couldn’t get inside the locked-up building and the on-call GP was nowhere to be found. A patient had to open up the hospital to let them in before a doctor was located. 

The GP was unable to help the Texan man at LDH, so he was eventually rushed to Invercargill’s Southland Hospital. Doctors there saved his life. 

“That was the first time I had my eyes opened to the poor state of affairs of our health services in Queenstown,” Cole recalls. Since then, the passionate 58-year-old has tirelessly fought for decent and fair healthcare in the resort. 

Last week, Cole and the volunteer organisation she set up, the Wakatipu Health Trust, passed the responsibility on to a newly-formed group led by Queenstown mayor Vanessa van Uden. 

“We’re not giving up, we’re simply passing the baton to the mayor’s group. It’s the time to do that because of the way things have unfolded,” Cole says. 

The well-publicised battle over healthcare has been a long one for Cole – and the trustees who also pushed to get fair health services in the resort. 

“It’s been a David and Goliath battle. Some of the dialogue with the Southern District Health Board has been very taxing on trustees – they’ve had to weather the constant undermining by the DHB of the trust’s research and findings.” 

Wakatipu Health Trust didn’t set out to become the vocal advocacy group as it’s now known. 

“The DHB wanted Central Lakes Trust to donate funding for a whole raft of equipment for LDH and the only way CLT agreed to do that was if a community trust was set up,” Cole says. 

Over time it’s funded more than $750,000 worth of equipment – like ultrasound scanners and special x-ray technology – for LDH on behalf of the community. 

“For the first few years we were in reactive mode – raising funds for equipment,” Cole explains. 

“But as time went on we became more aware of strategic issues that weren’t being addressed. Buying equipment was like sticking a band aid on a sore that wouldn’t go away.”

In 2008, the trust calculated that the Wakatipu’s 19,000 residents get $181 per head for hospital services – less than half the average yearly funding of other Otago-Southland satellite hospitals. 

Soon after, it spearheaded the first comprehensive public survey of local healthcare. 

“It’s fair to say that the DHB didn’t always appreciate our work. As the direction became more strategic, they became less comfortable with us,” she says. 

The National Health Board’s investigation this year – and its subsequent long list of proposals to keep the DHB in line – justified the trust’s fight, Cole believes. 

“We welcome and thoroughly endorse the panel’s recommendations. We think they have done a good job. It’s vindicated the issues that the trust’s been championing for many years.” 

Cole admits if it weren’t for the DHB’s refusal to work with them as part of a new group, they’d still be functioning. 

“But it’s not a bad time to step down. This has been, for me personally, all-consuming, and it does take its toll on a personal level.”

Trust chairman Craig Benington thanks his fellow trustees – Dr John Hillock, Helen Stevens, Dr Neki Patel and pharmacist Kristian Summer­field – and says Cole’s commitment to the cause has been “unwavering”. 

“Maria’s ability to deal with the politics and technical aspects of some complex and difficult issues has been invaluable. Without her the trust would never have achieved what it has.” 

Cole – who’s positive about the new group – says there’s still plenty of work to be done. 

“The community group will need to be really steadfast to ensure that they don’t become just a voice through which the DHB channels its decisions. There are still some very big challenges ahead – the outcome of which are by no means certain.”

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