Himali McInnes: My story, as told to Elisabeth Easther

Himali McInnes is a general practitioner who works in Three Kings and the prison system. She is an avid reader, enthusiastic gardener, poultry aficionado, dog fan and beekeeper. Her first book The Unexpected Patient: True Kiwi Stories of Life, Death and Unforgettable Clinical Cases is out now.

I was born in Sri Lanka in the 1970s. At that time it was becoming a socialist state, inflation was high and the economy was tanking, so my parents left for Malaysia when I was 1 and we returned when I was 8. I have such fond memories of Colombo, but I didn’t know about the backdrop of unrest. My grandfather owned a sawmill in a seaside suburb of Colombo, and I loved it there. There were old logs and guava trees to climb, sandpits to dig, cousins to play with, but there were also riots and upheaval. Then, when I was about 13, I saw an awful thing. A man had been “necklaced” – a tyre put around his neck and set alight – across the road from my grandparents’ house. He’d been killed and seeing his burnt body was so traumatic. Up until then, I’d always imagined I’d return to Sri Lanka, but from that day on, I couldn’t picture myself living there.

Sri Lanka become increasingly scary and when I was 9 we moved to Papua New Guinea. Thathi (dad) was offered a job with the Auditor General, and Ammi (mum) was a doctor and worked in the public hospital. My mum was worried about how primitive it would be – would we be eaten by cannibals – so we were pleasantly surprised to find all the trappings of suburbia and high school in Port Moresby was amazing. There were students from 71 different nationalities, it was co-ed and colourful with a great curriculum and passionate teachers.

Back then, I wanted to be a vet, or a nuclear physicist, because I loved science. I didn’t think about being a doctor, partly because I hated the sight of blood. When I turned 15 my parents started thinking ahead to university, so we moved to New Zealand, which was another big cultural shift. I was sent to an all-girls school and while it wasn’t inherently boring, compared to Port Moresby it was monocultural, single sex and you could only do six subjects in sixth form, so I had to drop all my arts subjects. Having left all my friends behind, I became a real girlie swot but, because I did so well in seventh form, I got in to medical school.

Medical school was great. Everyone was starting afresh. They were a fun bunch of really bright people, although where I’d been top of my class at school, at med school I was nearer the middle. I was also very squeamish, and I fainted often, like when we had to take blood out of each other’s veins, and practise vaccinations. I fainted in the wards too. As a junior doctor going on the rounds with a registrar, I was leaning against a window watching a lumbar puncture and I fainted. I was lucky I fell into the room, and not out the window. But you train yourself to be calm under pressure and I built up my tolerance the more I was exposed to things.

We are all profoundly affected by our past, our memories, the stories of our forebears. That concept really resonates with me. Many people think the outcome of their life is entirely due to their own actions, but that’s not always the case. When you look into the medicine, the science of it, so much comes from our past, the thumbprints of our ancestors. In my book, I talk about how I came to be where I am today because of the actions of my parents. Where I am is so different to my cousins – because my parents emigrated. My cousins are the same generation and also really bright, but they didn’t go to university, because the universities were all shut, and our paths diverged because of that.

As an adult, the more I learnt about Sri Lankan history, the more I wanted to distance myself, because it is horrific to think of the blood that soaks the soil of that beautiful country. When I saw Ahi Karunaharan’s play The Mourning After, the first Sri Lankan story I’d seen on stage, it made me feel really nostalgic and proud to be a Sri Lankan New Zealander. I hadn’t felt that for years so I thanked Ahi for bringing back good memories.

Our histories affect us in many ways. Every time I meet a patient who’s “difficult”, in inverted commas, I wonder what’s happened to that person, because difficult behaviour doesn’t come from nowhere. Intergenerational damage and trauma affect the function and structure of our brains, and those effects can be passed on. So I try always to be kind and not jump to conclusions, as so much inside us is unseen.

One beauty of general practice, over time you get to know people quite well, and there’s a real richness to those relationships. I’ve also been a patient in the hospital system, where sometimes you feel you’re on a conveyor belt but, every now and then you meet a specialist who treats you like a person. Even though their clinical acumen is the same as their colleagues, the consultation is much more fulfilling when it’s clear that they care. It’s easy for doctors to forget that the person at the other end of the stethoscope has a lot going on in their life. I will always remember the consultant who showed me empathy and kindness when I was doing IVF, and because they took a bit of extra time, I felt so grateful.

It was traumatic, to not have a child and, for a time I focused on what wasn’t in my life. But it didn’t happen and it’s not the end of the world and I’ve since made a conscious decision to focus on what is in my life. So many good things: good health, good family, to be living in a country that is safe, my animals and my husband. I have a lot of blessings, and I can still acknowledge them, even if one aspect of my life didn’t turn out how I’d hoped.

I knew I wanted to work with people outside the mainstream so when I was approached to work in prisons I said yes. But I was nervous. How would I be treated? Yes, people in prison can be quite hard, but 98 per cent of people are super lovely, and there are reasons people end up there. They don’t wake up one day and think I’m going to do something criminal, get convicted and go to prison. There’s always a story. Sexual abuse, domestic violence, living on the street, gangs, mental health issues, addiction, poverty. There are a raft of factors that sluice people down the criminal pathway so it is easy to have compassion.

I never imagined how complicated beekeeping would be, but I wanted to do it myself, because I love learning. Bees are quite gentle, with a very complex, cooperative society. Not like wasps. You wouldn’t stand in front of a wasp nest to watch their comings and goings but, on a sunny day, I’ll stand in front of my beehive and watch bees return, their back legs laden with pollen. They’ll meet other bees and transfer nectar, and sometimes do a dance to show the others where the pollen is. Bees are fascinating.

The workers are all female, and the males are quite fat, hairy and lazy, but they provide important functions. When you need to re-queen your hive, you order one from a professional beekeeper, so I had one delivered to my work, because I didn’t want her sitting in my letterbox in the hot sun. She arrived by express courier in a plastic carry cage with an entourage of worker bees, ladies-in-waiting, who groom and feed her. As I worked, I heard this strange piping noise, the sound the queen makes to communicate. I was so glad to experience that.

I am really proud of New Zealand’s response to Covid, putting the rights of the community first. Some people might disagree with that philosophy, but I definitely don’t think we should learn to live with the virus until we are much better vaccinated. We don’t have the resources and it would mean learning to die with the virus. We can’t know how Delta is going to pan out, but I am pathologically hopeful and so very grateful to be living here.

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