Northern Advocate Column

The wonder of Auckland City Hospital

7th October 2017

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The pyramids at Giza, the Parthenon in Athens, the Colosseum in Rome, and Auckland City Hospital in New Zealand. In thousands of years when future humans look back at us, sifting through whatever cultural detritus has survived, I’m betting public hospitals will be high on the list of early 21st century marvels.

I’d never spent time at Auckland City Hospital until recently when visiting a family member over the course of a week. Hospitals always focus the mind, but what heightened the impact was simply the scale. Immediately striking is the numbers of people. The population of the hospital on a weekday must be larger than many New Zealand towns. And probably more difficult to run.

Surely our modern genius for bureaucracy is no better displayed than by a hospital of this size. All those specialist roles coming together in a complex whole, from toilet cleaners to heart surgeons, anaesthetists to nursing administrators charged with organising the staff roster.

It’s a wonder it works as well as it does. And still, we want it to work better. If only with more specialist knowledge, more technology, more funding, we could conquer death itself. Perhaps not.

The other amazing thing about Auckland’s flagship hospital is the ethnic diversity. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere in the world, let alone New Zealand, where so many different ethnicities, cultures and nationalities were evident. If you’ve got issues with our burgeoning multiculturalism, then you better not require life-saving surgery. Or better, get over it and appreciate what a diverse bunch of people working together can achieve.

Which is not to idealize it too much, there are hierarchies, and no doubt petty frustrations and dysfunction, like any large organisation. And our centralised, high-tech health system isn’t always good at providing holistic patient care, favouring intervention as it does over prevention. But stepping back from it all as an observer, you can’t help but be in awe of the whole vast structure, from the inventory of disposable gloves to the head boss sitting somewhere in a plush office. Amazed as anyone that it’s all working, who’s hoping like hell nothing major goes wrong.

A surprising part of my experience of Auckland City Hospital was the quality of art on the walls. When you first enter there’s a massive painting by Pat Hanly, one of my all-time favourite New Zealand artists, titled Vacation Composition. I’m a sucker for colourful abstraction done well, so to walk in and out of the hospital and view this towering work was a treat. On almost every spare wall there were paintings, prints, and photographs by major New Zealand artists. Some of the work is part of the hospital’s own collection, but an equal amount is on loan from private collections.

Maybe it was the context, but I haven’t been as moved looking at art for a long time. So much so, that with time to fill, I searched down empty corridors, rode the lifts to obscure parts of the hospital, looking for another artwork that might interest me. Public art co-existing with public healthcare, definitely onto something.

For all its marvels and thought-provoking complexity, however, I hope not to experience Auckland City Hospital again anytime soon. It’s still a place I’d rather not be. This visit, thankfully, had a successful outcome.

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