Real Life

Surgeon’s sacrifice to save lives

The one-time rocker has a new audience!

She is New Zealand’s top children’s heart surgeon, saving the lives of hundreds of babies and kids each year by repairing hearts as tiny as walnuts.

Yet the surgical career of Dr Kirsten Finucane, which now spans nearly 20 years, came close to never getting off the ground. As a young medical student, she grew faint at the sight of blood. And as one of only a handful of female students studying medicine in Auckland in the ’80s, she was told surgery wouldn’t suit a woman who one day wanted to have a family.

“Thank God I didn’t listen to that,” says Kirsten, who lives in Remuera with her three sons, Michael, 22, Tim, 17, and William, 15, and her partner, paediatric cardiologist Dr John Wright. Fortunately, as Kirsten progressed through her training, the queasiness wore off and a hands-on stint at a missionary hospital in Nepal instilled in her a love of surgery. “With one procedure, you can change someone’s life – they are fixed,” she muses.

It was during her hospital internship in Palmerston North – where she played bass guitar in punk band Thin Red Line – that Kirsten realised she not only had a talent for surgery but also that anything was possible. “I met some amazing surgeons who proved you can have the job and have a life too.”

For nearly two decades, Kirsten has been Auckland’s director of surgery for the Paediatric and Congenital Cardiac Service, leading a team who operate on the country’s smallest and sickest hearts.

It’s a job that sees her perform up to 300 operations a year, often working 70-hour weeks. “To see hearts working well and kids waking up healthy and safe is hugely satisfying,” she says.

Kirsten with her sons (from left) Michael, William and Tim, and partner John, who is a paediatric cardiologist.

Life is short

But at the age of 53, Kirsten also recognises how precious time is. “My dad died abruptly at 66 and it was a wake-up call,” she adds. “This is not a job – it’s a complete vocation. And yes, there are times when it’s hard for me to keep going at such a rate.”

The year 2002 was particularly difficult – her youngest son was diagnosed with autism and, not long after, her marriage to her boys’ father ended. But a love of surgery and a belief she’s making a difference kept her going.

Kirsten says she’s been lucky enough to have great support from her wider family and has always employed a nanny to help run things at home. “Forget fast cars – that’s where all the money goes,” she jokes. “There have been sacrifices over the years, but working and genuinely loving the work I do has made me a better mother.”

Kirsten comes from a long line of medical professionals. She tells, “My late father was a physician at Greenlane Hospital, my grandfathers were doctors, my uncle was a doctor … Initially, I thought, ‘Oh, God, give me something else to do!’” She toyed with becoming a farmer or engineer but was driven to medicine by a desire to work with people and help others.

Kirsten smiles, “When I look at the work I’ve carried out, I’m very proud. The kids get a really good service. We have world-class results.”

Earlier this year, Kirsten performed a heart transplant on NZ’s youngest recipient, a five-year-old girl. “She is out of hospital now and doing well,” beams Kirsten.

Another former patient who was on death’s door now has a baby and plays first-grade rugby. “There are many, many families who I have stayed in touch with over the years,” she tells.

It’s Kirsten’s desire to save lives that has seen her, along with a volunteer medical team, travel to Suva, Fiji, this month to operate on 15 babies and children, many with easily fixable heart problems.

“There are about 350 babies born in the Pacific each year with some form of congenital heart defect,” explains Kirsten. “Many die young or live a poor quality of life. Although the Pacific has a population of 2.2 million, heart surgery isn’t done locally. These people are neighbours. We should do everything we can to help.”

She is one of the 24 doctors and nurses on the Hearts4Kids Trust team who are taking annual leave to work for free in the islands for one week each year. The charity has raised $60,000 to help with costs and because resources are limited in Fiji, they are taking seven tonnes of medical equipment, from sophisticated machinery to simple gauze.

For Kirsten, who joined the team last year, the trip is a high point of her year and a reminder of why she fought to become a surgeon.

“This is pure surgery. I love it,” she says. “To do something well, that is my reward – and to save and enrich a life, that makes everything worthwhile.”

Kirsten is also part of a team who operate on ill children in Fiji for free.

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