As the country’s northernmost GP, and later as the MP for the country’s northernmost Māori electorate, Bruce Gregory was the ultimate community doctor.
We’re not on a road, not even a dirt road. We’re crawling through a rutted gap between sand dunes in Bruce’s ancient Land Rover. It is, to put it mildly, an uncomfortable ride. “Bruce. This must be the oldest Land Rover in the North Island. You’re a doctor. You’re making rounds. Why don’t you t-t-treat yourself to something newer, faster, a b-b-bit less b-b-bouncy?”
Bruce downshifts to a still lower gear. “The new ones are too powerful. You need slow and weak to get you through the sand.”
At the end of the non-road sits something between a bungalow and a shack. An old white guy is the sole inhabitant. He’s clearly glad to see Bruce, invites us in for a cuppa. This will be our first cup of tea of the day but far from our last. We spend about half an hour with him, during which he and Bruce chat while Bruce takes his pulse, listens to his chest and performs other doctorly procedures.
As we drive north, Bruce asks me, “What’s your diagnosis?”
I’m not a GP, not any kind of medic, but I think back to the old guy and give it a go. Hmm. He had a cough. “Pneumonia.”
I try a few more dead-ends, then say, “OK, Doctor, what is the diagnosis?”
Bruce sighs. “Loneliness.”
Bruce Gregory held two distinctions. He was New Zealand’s northernmost general practitioner and one of its few Māori doctors. Otago Medical School had given me a grant to follow him on his rounds for a week, and Bruce and Elaine had kindly ensconced me and the Older whānau into their crib on Ninety Mile Beach.
During his weekly run north, starting with the lonely man, Bruce treated people at home and on the marae, in a clinic and under a tree, and over dinner at the table of one of his patients. I saw him paid in cash, in crays, and not at all. That day, he treated individuals, couples, entire families. I witnessed superlative medicine in action.
Bruce and I also spent time together in Dunedin. I invited him to lecture young med students on practicing medicine with Māori patients. Because med students were among the most conservative on campus, what I viewed as straightforward clinical lectures raised strong feelings, heated exchanges, loud arguments. At the end of the strongest, hottest and loudest, Bruce slid a kōauau (a bone flute) out of his jacket pocket and played a quiet tune. It instantly calmed a roomful of 200 angry, upset students. I later learnt that Bruce had made the kōauau himself; along with attending cuts, coughs and bruises, he was a master carver.
One of the lessons he imparted in his med school talks was this: “When a Māori kid comes in, the whole family will come too. Treat them all. On the spot. Regular visits to the doctor are not part of their lives, so use the opportunity to treat them all.”
I wasn’t the only one to recognise the skills of Bruce Gregory. The Labour Party invited/entreated him to run as the MP for Northern Maori (now Te Tai Tokerau). He won in 1980 and served until 1993.
When he became a politician, did he give up doctoring? Not according to Pete Hodgson. Pete was also a Labour MP (and multi-portfolio’d minister). His time in office overlapped Bruce’s. He recalls, “Bruce was always ready to be the resident GP to all and sundry — MPs, staff, security folk alike. He was widely respected for it.”
And when Bruce left government, that didn’t end his public service. In the blink of an eye, he joined the NZ Council of Social Services, NZ Māori Council, Northern Advisory Health Committee, Kaitaia College Board of Governors, the Far North Regional Museum and more. Bruce became chairman of the Tai Tokerau District Maori Council, founded the Far North Credit Union, and chaired Te Taumata Kaumātua o Ngāpuhi-nui-tonu.
In and out of politics, he championed teaching Te Reo, honouring the Treaty of Waitangi, recognising Māori ownership of the foreshore, protecting our natural taonga, and other then-unpopular issues.
In his honor, Te Hiku Hauora in Kaitaia created the Dr Bruce Gregory Merit Award; it goes to local secondary school students who show outstanding achievement in te reo Māori. Along with prizes, the awardees get free basic dentistry. Bruce would love that.
Dr Bruce Gregory was of Ngāi Tahu, Ta Rawara and Scottish descent. He died in 2015 at the age of 78.