Tamahere’s Win Meyer-Rochow and Marianne Elston moved 15 times between graduating from medical school and settling in Tamahere late last year.
Buying a house with a large garden on almost a hectare of land at Tamahere, with a view to staying put for more than a few short years, was a new experience, they say in a Waikato DHB profile.
“We’ve never had our own home, it’s fun,” Win says, “but I’m on a steep learning curve with the garden.”
The couple are in the same highly-specialised line of medicine: endocrinology, the study of hormones and the glands that produce them such as thyroid, parathyroid and adrenal. Meyer-Rochow is the most specialised endocrine surgeon in New Zealand; currently waiting for word, he has been awarded his PhD doctorate from Sydney University. Elston already has hers from the same university, for research into the molecular basis of pituitary tumours.
This week, Elston won the Emerging Scientist Award in the Waikato’s Kudos science awards for her work concerning the identification of genes involved in the development of pituitary tumours.
While dinnertime conversation in their house would be incomprehensible to most people, with two young children, Brayden, 2, and Briana, 1, they try not to take too much work home.
“Although one of the advantages of having the same specialty is communication,” Elston says, “obviously we discuss things and consult each other.”
Both describe themselves as “non-metropolitan” people. Meyer-Rochow is 37 and grew up in Hamilton, went to Ohaupo primary and intermediate schools and Melville High School. He did a medical intermediate year at the University of Waikato before gaining entry to University of Otago medical school where he met Elston, 39. She grew just outside of Timaru, had “pet lambs and all that sort of stuff” and their first house surgeon jobs, at Blenheim’s 125-bed Wairau Hospital, suited them both.
“It was fun and the lifestyle was great,” Meyer-Rochow says. “Also there were no registrars, so as house surgeons we really had to step up, we had more senior roles than if we had been in a bigger institution.”
Meyer-Rochow’s goal was to be a surgeon so when he was accepted into Specialist General Surgery training with the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, which included rotations at Tauranga, Waikato, Middlemore and Auckland hospitals, the couple began their nomadic lifestyle. They spent two years working at Waikato Hospital during this time but eventually left for Australia to further their careers.
Meyer-Rochow had been awarded an internationally sought-after fellowship in endocrine surgery, studying at the University of Sydney and working at Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital. During the four years the couple lived in Australia, he travelled to Germany, the US and Korea to study international endocrine surgery techniques while Elston began her PhD in endocrinology at the prestigious Kolling Institute for Medical Research attached to the Royal North Shore.
They were a young, highly qualified couple, dedicated in their respective areas of research and clinical work and they had begun a family. Brayden was born in late 2007 and Briana in late 2009, just one day after Elston was told she had her PhD.
There were plenty of reasons to stay in Australia, including all the opportunities of a large metropolitan centre with first-class research and clinical infrastructure. For Meyer-Rchow, (who has dual New Zealand/Australian citizenships) there were no barriers to staying in Australia and an eventual move into private practice in Australia would have come with eye-watering salary attached.
Instead, they came back to the Waikato.
“Hamilton has a growing population and research infrastructure and then there’s the lifestyle,” Meyer-Rochow says. “I’ve seen tremendous growth here since I was a child, it’s a much more vibrant and active place than it used to be and Australia is a much more competitive environment, it seems to be moving in much the same direction as the US where there is a lot of commercialisation, a lot of self-promotion and so on.”
What also helped lure them back was the chance for Meyer-Rochow to take on a senior lecturer role with the University of Auckland along with Waikato Hospital’s strong research links with institutions such as AgResearch and the University of Auckland and the relationships they forged with colleagues during their two-year stint at Waikato.
“The department was very keen for us to come back and we had gotten to know the staff,” Elston says. “It’s a bit like a big family here and the timing turned out to be perfect because there was a niche here which needed to be filled.”
The “keyhole” or minimally invasive surgical techniques for selected patients which Meyer-Rochow is experienced in – requiring a 1.5cm to 2.5cm incision instead of the more traditional 8cm to 15cm – puts the hospital at the forefront of leading endocrine surgical techniques which allows some patients to be discharged the same day of surgery and most patients within 24 hours.
“We’re probably the only hospital in Australasia doing same-day endocrine surgery and although you have to select the patients carefully, so far the results are really good,” he says. “It’s one of the major things I’ve been able to bring back to Waikato.
“Right now we are both immersed in that, trying to further improve public services and while eventually I will probably move into private work, at the moment that’s not my focus.”
Elston works two days a week but will gradually increase her hours as the children get older.
“Working is good for my sanity,” she says, “and you have to keep up, everything is changing so quickly.”
At the end of the interview Elston says she will “just pop up” to her department before taking Brayden and Briana to “the ducky park” while Meyer-Rochow spends time working on a research paper. Toys, pushchairs and small children are packed up and the family moves off to begin what will be a very busy day. But for now at least, the couple’s nomadic days are over.
“I think it’s actually important for people to go away overseas and come back,” Elston says. “New Zealand is a small country and we need to see what other countries are doing and forming links with people overseas. But it’s also great that New Zealand hospitals like Waikato let doctors like us know that they would like us to come back and that there is work here for us.”