As a popular General Practitioner in the far north town of Kaitaia, Dr Lance O’Sullivan knows all too well that heart disease is the leading killer of Maori men. He’s tackling the problem not only with his advice and treatment amongst his community, but by answering your questions on PHARMAC’S One Heart Many Lives website and practising what he preaches as a regular triathlon, Ironman and Iron Maori competitor.
Dominika White reports
Dr Lance O’Sullivan - GP, Ironman & Iron Maori competitor
He sits nervously for his appointment, it’s been a while since he last came here and is unsure what this visit will reveal. “Is everything okay?” The doctor asks him after surveying his file. With a quick grin the patient replies: “Yeah, everything’s sweet as, Doc.” It is almost believable until he’s jabbed in the ribs by his partner sitting next to him. “Everything is not alright!” she says, “Tell him what’s wrong”. Scenes like this are not uncommon in Dr Lance O’Sullivan’s (Te Rarawa, Ngati Hau, Ngati Maru) practice in Kaitaia in the far north. Men are less likely to see their doctor but, in many cases, they are the ones that need it most and sometimes it takes a little persuasion from a concerned family member. Any inspiration to get a check-up is welcomed by O’Sullivan. As a doctor committed to spreading the message about good health, he understands the need to make people aware that coronary heart disease is single-handedly killing Maori more than any other condition. But it is preventable. “It’s just like a car,” says O’Sullivan. “You can’t leave it for so long that it becomes an expensive repair bill. Regular maintenance is better than crisis management.”
O’Sullivan is a supporter of the One Heart Many Lives campaign that aims to educate and inspire men to understand their risk of getting heart disease and do something about it. Maori men are almost twice more likely to die from coronary heart disease than non-Maori, but may not be aware of this because there is lack of access to medical advice or because of what O’Sullivan believes is one of the biggest hurdles for getting a check-up: fear. “Many patients are fearful that if they go they’re going to tell them all these things, like they have diabetes or they’re lazy and overweight.” O’Sullivan, along with the One Heart Many Lives team, has come up with a solution to this by setting up an ‘Ask a Doctor’ forum on the One Heart Many Lives website where people can anonymously ask O’Sullivan about any concerns they may have about their health.
Lance O’Sullivan on good health: "It’s just like a car. You can’t leave it for so long that it becomes an expensive repair bill. Regular maintenance is better than crisis management."
It’s also a way of allowing people to access free professional advice without having to drive a long distance, handy when you’re in a rural area like Kaitaia. Smoking is a huge factor contributing to getting heart disease and is one of the main reasons why Maori are more likely to be hospitalised from a heart condition than non-Maori. Studies show that quitting alone can significantly reduce the chances of getting the disease. General fitness is another way of avoiding a heart condition. Participants in the One Heart Many Lives (OHML) campaign talk about their motivation for getting fit on the website, but admit it’s not easy, especially if unhealthy living has grown into a bad habit over the years. Like a lot of his patients O’Sullivan himself strayed away from fitness after his teen years, despite being quite athletic at school, and admits it wasn’t easy to get back into exercising.
“When I first started running I could hardly run a kilometre. I could run 750m then I had to stop. But I couldn’t be put off that, when I first started, I could only do a K. I thought okay today I did a K, tomorrow I’ll do 2 K and the day after a 3 K” Now he’s able to run or bike the 30km to work and back and fit it around the busy lifestyle of being a father of seven children. O’Sullivan encourages his patients to also take small steps to get active. “It’s like when you do a marathon, if you looked at the finishing line when you were at the start line, you wouldn’t believe you could get there.” And O’Sullivan knows a bit about marathons. He has competed in both the Iron Man and Iron Maori competitions for the past two years. Through the Iron Maori event he’s seen how people’s attitude toward fitness is changing. This year Iron Maori was so popular that the event sold out within minutes of it opening for registration. Many from Kaitaia are also taking on the challenge, the number of competitors from the town jumped from one to 45 in a year. O’Sullivan believes it’s because the event has tikanga, tautoko and manaakitanga. “If you have the right settings and if you have the right message put out there Maori will take it on. If your kids see you doing it, they’re going to get inspired.”
A revealing part of the OHML website is that for many the change toward getting healthy is seeing their kids grow up. As O’Sullivan points out, for many it’s a matter of acknowledging how important one life is to the people around them. “It’s not about doing it for you; it’s about doing it for others.” ❚ Ask a Question Dr Lance O’Sullivan is passionate about contributing to Maori and Pacific health gains. He is a strong supporter of the One Heart Many Lives kaupapa and is more than happy to answer your questions and advise you about the healthier options available for you. Go to www.oneheartmanylives.co.nz and click on ‘Ask a Question’ in the section headed ‘Have a medical question? Ask Dr Lance O’Sullivan’.