Experiencing a work holiday in New Zealand, family style. By Jillian Verby Klaucke, MD.
It was freezing outside. The chill in the air was biting, and the ocean roared as waves crashed on the long, sandy beach. A gentle breeze blew as the sea mist coated our faces. Though it was August, it was mid-winter in New Zealand. And my family and I, including a 5-month-old and a 2-year-old, were about to ditch our warm clothes for swimsuits. And dig in, literally, at Hot Water Beach hot springs.
The natural hot spring river becomes accessible for a soak two hours either side of low tide, when visitors come armed with a spade or small shovel and dig their own spa pool in the beach sand. The Pacific Ocean provides a scenic backdrop and cold water to temper the heat of the spring, which can reach 147 degrees Fahrenheit. Our family found ourselves in this extraordinary place over a long weekend after moving to New Zealand for a year-long work holiday in 2017.
Upon arrival to Auckland, our small family was greeted with “Kia Ora,” which translates to mean “Hello” or “Be well and healthy.” Our children were delighted to learn “Hongi,” the traditional Maori greeting in which people press their noses together and touch foreheads. My daughter, Greta, was entranced by a performance of a “Haka” at the Auckland museum, a traditional Maori war dance that has evolved into a demonstration of community and strength.
As newcomers to New Zealand, we learned to use the Maori language daily. We have habitually changed our vocabulary and now say nappy, rubbish, jumper (for sweater), petrol, wee and pram despite returning to the U.S. One of my son’s first words was “Ta,” which is a common way to say “Thank you.”
In contrast to the tranquility of natural hot pools, the urban scene in Auckland also took some adaptation. Many of the homes in the city are placed two per lot, with a “front house” and “back house.” Each plot may have room for a small yard or garden. The homes were smaller, built for warm weather, and lacked insulation. Without central heat, homes were warmed with a heat pump or heater in each room, to be turned on only when the room was occupied. Economy cars were the standard, and work fleets were made up of vans, rather than pickup trucks, to save on fuel, which could cost up to $3.80 NZ per liter (or about $9.90 USD per gallon).
While in Auckland, my husband and I both worked in health care. Jonathan had contracted to complete pediatric and sports orthopedic fellowships, and I worked as a general practitioner in a clinic in the Mission Bay suburb. The practice where I worked was staffed at any one time by a practice nurse and three physicians and was just big enough for each one of us to have a combined office/exam room. Each consultation was limited to one health concern or 15 minutes maximum, whichever came first. That may mean that a patient was seen once or twice a week, or booked a longer visit if more time was needed, and it helped that GP practices and the health-care system are subsidized by the NZ government.
Patients are not required to have insurance and only pay small fees to see physicians. More complicated health concerns can be addressed in the specialist realm, but wait times for covered care can be up to four to six months to see a specialist or a few weeks to months to complete routine imaging such as ultrasound. In NZ, 100 percent of all medical care is covered for children under age 13. For anyone in New Zealand, whether permanent resident or visitor, any accident, such as a broken bone or getting the wrong vaccination or an infected bug bite, is covered under the ACC, or Accident Compensation Corporation. As a GP, government-funded services resulted in access to resources needed to solve a difficult problem or make a diagnosis, but I found that New Zealanders in general were self-reliant and realistic about outcomes and utilization of such resources which helps keep funding in place.
I often had travel consultations during my sessions with patients. Because NZ is so close to the Pacific Islands, families would come in to discuss pre-travel vaccinations or return to report tropical illness or other travel medical concerns. Many NZ residents are foreign nationals and have connections to their home countries. This made our visits quite interesting, as I would have to translate a prescription from Chinese, or French, or read doctor’s notes from Chile or Argentina (with the help of a translator).
Many of the families that we met, either professionally or socially, in New Zealand were pleased with the infrastructure. Aside from medical coverage, public works kept the country tidy and functioning. We potty trained our eldest in NZ, and I was thankful for the ubiquitous, clean public toilets available in every town. Museums were free for NZ residents, and the library system could obtain any book available in the world on request. Roads were well maintained, and I got used to navigating rotaries, or roundabouts, while driving on the left side of the road (thus clockwise).
Our kids thrived in our new locale, trying new foods and learning new habits. One of my favorite memories was of my daughter, who saw live New Zealand green-lipped mussels in the grocery store water tank. The mussel is a traditional Maori staple and is very affordable. While seated in the cart, she asked me, “Mummy, can we get mussels please?” And I, pleased with Greta’s willingness to try new foods, exuberantly packed up a kilo into the shopping “trolley.” When we were at home, after steaming them with lemon and garlic, we sat down to eat. As my husband and I savored the flavor, we didn’t expect our daughter to eat her mussels and then resolutely ask for more, more, more! Greta and her brother adapted easily to the kiwi lifestyle. Soon after arrival, Greta ceased wearing shoes, like most of the children in Auckland, and no longer fussed when applying sunscreen, happy to oblige with the Slip! Slop! Slap! Campaign.
On Hot Water Beach that afternoon, we were lucky that burn time is a bit longer in the winter, but despite, we lathered up in sunscreen before taking a dip into the pools. As the sea roared over our shoulders and we felt the warm water of the pools, my husband and I looked at each other, nodded and knew that we were fortunate to have the opportunity to call New Zealand home, if only briefly. After 14 months in an amazing country, it’s nice to be home in the U.S, but we also miss the community that we were a part of in Auckland and the stunning beauty around every turn as we traveled in New Zealand. We would love to return, but, as it’s said in Te Reo Maori, “Ma Te Wa” or time will tell (and hope to see you soon).
Jillian Verby Klaucke, MD, is a family physician who has lived and worked in New Zealand on three separate occasions since 2001 and was recently there for 14 months with her family over 2017-2018.