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From sidelines to siblings: Mike Bowen reflects on his life as a GP

Many would think being the All Blacks team doctor during a world cup would quite rightly be the career highlight for a retiring GP. Probably even more so when the world cup in question was that fateful '95 campaign in South Africa.

And yes, it certainly ranks up there. But Mike Bowen was drawn into life as a GP because of the joy of working alongside families and truly getting to know them. So when asked for his most treasured memory he immediately recalls delivering a woman's 15th child, with 13 of her other children present, welcoming their new sibling into the world with a waiata. It's a story that brings a real smile to his eyes.

Mike has been a firm fixture in the Glenview Medical team since 1974 when he arrived on the 'ten pound pom' scheme as the government programme was referred to back then.

"For a grand sum of about twenty pounds I was able to move my wife and two children from England to New Zealand, with the government and practice jointly meeting the remaining costs. There was no contracts, no agreements - it was all done on trust," Mike reflects.

"I really didn't think Hamilton would be where I stayed. Having trained in London and settled in Bristol I didn't think it would be enough for us. In fact all of New Zealand was a bit of a culture shock - Auckland International Airport was no more than a hangar at the time. But I loved the work, there was so much opportunity in the community."

Despite the feeling of landing in a 'one horse town' Mike quickly found his feet in the practice, continuing to support at least half of his patients for over 40 years, including four generations of family members in some cases.

"Having those long term relationships is what I enjoy most about being a GP. People appreciate you being there for them, and really knowing their challenges. It's very humbling."

His interests firmly lie in family care - he cites that as his first reason for becoming a GP. But Mike also had a real passion for sports. On arriving in Hamilton he quickly got involved in the Waikato sports medicine group and over the years worked alongside the Melville Rugby Club, Waikato Rugby, the New Zealand rowing team (1976-1994), and of course as the All Blacks team doctor from 1994-1995. (Check out this NZ Herald video interview for more details on the infamous alleged food poisoning incident.)

Even with those high profile sporting roles, families never took a back seat.

"I loved practicing obstetrics and used to deliver around 120 babies per year. It was a bit of a crazy life with many a weekend spent dashing from the sports field to a delivery. But I kept at it because it was a privilege and a fantastic way to connect to families."

The 1996 funding change that saw most GPs handover care to midwives was met with real sadness for Mike. But of course many things changed over the years.

"When I first started in New Zealand there was a sense of freedom in general practice, we weren't as constrained as our colleagues in the hospital. There were not so many rules and criteria around how we provided care.

"It's not that the regulations and criteria are wrong, it is just with increased rules come increased administration, which leads to less time for seeing people.

"When you come to know your patients well you can reach a diagnosis easily. Sometimes I can half tell what's wrong just from seeing their face in the waiting room because I know them, I know their world."

Continuity of care is important to Mike, and he's confident that even without him it is something that Glenview Medical will continue to do well.

"Whenever we can we like our patients to see their usual doctor rather than just whoever is free that day. I'd also like to acknowledge Dr Gill Stonelake with whom I shared my practice over the last seven years before her retirement in December 2017. I can assure my patients we've found a good new doctor, Louise Spellman, to continue their care. She's already started to spend some time with the team and she'll officially start with the Centre on 5 February."

While it's hard to let go after so many years, Mike has some exciting things planned to kick off his retirement.

"My wife and I have planned a big trip through Europe, seeing family we haven't seen for a long time and visiting places we've never been to. And of course my love of sports continues, with a South Island cycling trip booked and plans to enjoy more skiing time.

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