“Rangatahi, have to accept the responsibility of moving forward by doing it yourselves.  Being passive won’t work.  The fire needs to burn deep in us all”. Dr Tony Ruakere

Dr Tony Ruakere (1940-2019) Taranaki and Te Atiawa

In the 1960s it took Tony Ruakere two days to hitchhike from his home in Taranaki to medical school in Dunedin. It was a trip he made 31 times before graduating in 1970 with a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MB ChB) from Otago University.

Opunake was where he began his career, setting up his own private practice, which got so busy he employed his mate Dr Paratene (Pat) Ngata to help. He then shifted to New Plymouth working in a ‘very exclusive, mainly Pākehā, high-end, high-income, very pleasant’ clinic before he had a change of heart, and direction.

Talking to media in 2014 he said, “I looked out the window and saw it was our people who were the ones crying out for services”, which was the motivation in the 1990s for setting up the Te Atiawa Medical Centre. The patients had big families and there was about 70 per cent unemployment in the community but the centre was low-cost and offered accessibility and affordability.

“Cost was a big factor, so we had minimal fees, just enough to cover costs. You wouldn’t make a fortune working for a practice like ours,” said Dr Ruakere speaking to Stuff.co.nz in 2014. He was disappointed when it closed but said they’d run out of resources. The clinic had very high needs, not enough staff, and was far more difficult than operating a mainstream practice.

While an average practice at the time had about 1200 patients, Dr Ruakere’s had 7000 patients on the books. Over his 42 years as a GP it’s estimated that Dr Ruakere saw half a million patients and had reached the third generation of families in his care when he retired.

He also delivered 700 babies, putting to good use the Diploma in Obstetrics that he’d earnt in 1974.

Dr Ruakere was made a Fellow of The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners in 1998.

In 2006 he was named a Distinguished Fellow, an awarded nominated by peers for doctors who are outstanding in their profession and the College’s highest honour.

In 2014 he was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Māori health.