Dr Moira Cunningham Retires

11th April 2023 | Back to News
Dr Moira Cunningham Retires
Dr Moira Cunningham

This Easter Dr Moira Cunningham retired from Three Rivers Medical after a long and rewarding career as a GP.

It’s a really special area to work in — you’re with someone through their toughest times and while no one can change the fact they are facing a terminal illness, you can help people cope with it and you can make their time more comfortable.

Dr Cunningham is sorry to be leaving her patients and colleagues at Three Rivers but the time is right, she says.
“I want to leave while capable of doing the job well. Medicine is constantly evolving andrequires a lot of ongoing study which has been manageable so far.”

Originally from Thurso on the north coast of Scotland, Moira studied medicine at Aberdeen University, graduating in 1984.
Her decision to become a doctor seemed an obvious choice.
“I was always good at sciences, but I knew I wanted to work with people so it came from that.”
“I chose general practice because of the continuity of care. I liked the idea of working with families, seeing patients of all ages and treating a range of conditions rather than just one.
“That appealed to me, to see the same people and give them ongoing care.
“In Scotland we do our house officer years and then start our specialist training. My first two years of specialist GP training were hospital-based where we did obstetrics, gynaecology, paediatrics, general medicine, ENT (ear, nose and throat) and psychiatry.
“By that time I was thinking of how I was going to apply all this learning and knowledge once I was working in the community.
“All those things I learned all those years ago in that part of training, I still see on a daily basis,” she says.
“It was a very broad training but a very good one.”

After graduating she and her husband Bruce Duncan, also a doctor, decided to go travelling and embarked on their OE. They worked for a year in Te Kuiti in the Waikato.
“We loved our OE and the New Zealand lifestyle but at the end of the year we went back for further training in Scotland and stayed until 1997.”
On her return to Scotland Moira worked in breast cancer screening in Edinburgh for seven years.
She worked at a clinic which had just completed the trials which launched UK breast cancer screening for women. It is the basis of the programme in New Zealand. It was during this time Moira had her two children.
By now the couple were feeling the pull of New Zealand, and in 1997 they packed up their life in Scotland and brought their two young children aged two and four to settle in Gisborne. Bruce was employed as Tairāwhiti Medical Officer of Health and Moira was happy to be a stay-at-home mum. This was short-lived though as she was quickly offered a job in palliative care with Hospice Tairāwhiti which she would do for the next 24 years.
“It’s a really special area to work in — you’re with someone through their toughest times and while no one can change the fact they are facing a terminal illness, you can help people cope with it and you can make their time more comfortable.
“You’re helping in a very unique and privileged way, allowing you to get very close to people and their families.”
The palliative care role meant caring for people in their homes and it was a good way for the new doctor from overseas to earn trust and be accepted and welcomed into the community.

Moira was determined to make her work as a doctor fit around her role as a mum and was later offered the part-time hours she wanted by Kaiti Medical Centre in 2000.
“I didn’t have whānau here so didn’t have anyone to look after the children. I was very grateful to get that part-time job.”
Palliative care also worked well alongside general practice.
She was part of the original Kaiti Medical team who moved into the new Three Rivers Medical building when it opened on Customhouse Street in 2012.
“There are a lot of families I have seen the whole way through. One of the gorgeous bits of the job is when someone comes in with their 16 year old and you remember doing their six-week check as a baby.”

Moira said she had enjoyed being part of a well-qualified team who never hesitate to support one another.
“I have enjoyed this job because I feel this is a team who have got each other’s back.
“There’s tough stuff that goes on in medicine but people look out for each other here and try to help.
“Seeing a team work well in a difficult profession is wonderful.
“We have stressful times, but it’s like any strong relationship in that it has its moments but we always work through it.
“And while this is a wonderful facility, it’s been about the people for me.”
Another thing she loves to this day is that she never knows what will come through the door.
“I reflect at the end of days sometimes thinking who would’ve guessed that I would see all that on one day.
“One minute you’re doing gynaecology, then its orthopaedics and then a small child will come in.
“I am still surprised by the variety of patients and cases I can see in one day.”

She has seen major changes in the medical sector over the past 30 years — “many are improvements like technology advances but some are not”.
“General practice workloads and challenges continue to increase but the funding is not keeping up,” Moira says.
“This lack of funding and pay disparity for our staff compared to hospitals is a huge stress for the sector.
“We all worry about what general practice will look like going forward.”

One highlight over her extensive medical career has been watching the Gisborne community health teams rise to the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The general practice work style changed overnight — everyone adapted and flexed and bent to meet the need which seemed to change on a daily basis.
“It was phenomenal to watch community staff rise to the challenge of something that was huge.”
It has been a long and rewarding career and one she has given her heart and soul to. She is looking forward to an upcoming trip, back to her native Scotland where she will connect with family, friends and see some of her graduating class from medical school who she has kept in touch with.

While she is not ruling out doing special projects in the future, she is ready to give retirement a good go first.

She is grateful for the opportunity to work at Three Rivers Medical Centre and knows they will continue to nurture new younger staff to provide a high quality of medical care to the community of Tairāwhiti.

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