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A Life Story – A tribute to Dr John Crowley

Below are excerpts from a eulogy given in honour of Dr John Crowley. He was an Obstetrician and Gynaecologist from the Manawatu who was a member of the New Zealand Health Professionals Alliance. He was a mentor to many colleagues and he always upheld the right to conscientious objection while following best practice guidelines in his care of patients.

Tribute to John Crowley
by Dr Murray Shaw, General Practitioner, Palmerston North, March 2012

This is a tribute to John, but first I want to pay two other tributes.

First, a tribute to Pat, who died 13 years ago. I still remember clearly her gentle and warm manner as she made cups of tea for a group of us early on a Monday morning when we would gather in her kitchen with John to pray. Mostly she would sit nearby listening. Occasionally we could persuade her to sit with us and contribute some grounded wisdom to our lofty talk.  Pat and John together created a rich heritage for a family that now extends for 3 more generations. And John was able to achieve much in large part because of her quiet strength.

Second, to John’s children, I pay tribute to you, for the way you honoured your father and cared for him and surrounded him with your love, especially through his final illness.

Thanks for sharing this time with us. He was a family man and I imagine that part of you would have liked a quiet family gathering for this farewell. He belonged to you.

But he belonged to us as well. He belonged to those who worked with him. He belonged to the many women whose babies he delivered or who benefited from his surgical skills. He belonged to those who shared his faith and his passion. And we are all represented here.

So thank you for allowing us to share this time with you.

Dr John Crowley gained his medical degree at Otago in 1952, then went on to gain UK, Australasian and New Zealand specialist qualifications as a surgeon and obstetrician and gynaecologist, starting with the English surgical fellowship in London in 1956, the Australasian surgical fellowship in 1960, the English O&G fellowship in 1968 and the New Zealand O&G fellowship in 1981.

He then took up the position that he would hold until he retired, as an O&G specialist at Palmerston North Hospital.

For part of this time he held the position of Chairman and Clinical Manager of the Obstetrics and Gynaecology Department. .

He was an elected member of the Manawatu-Wanganui Area Health Board, at a time when big changes were beginning in the health system.

He also established a thriving private O&G practice in rooms just across from the Hospital. He delivered many babies and in this area of obstetrics he became something of an institution, an icon for many women.

In some ways it’s a very simple Curriculum Vitae, and for many it would indicate a full professional life, one to be looked back on from one’s retirement rocking-chair with satisfaction. But, as we all know, John was so much more than that. There never was any rocking-chair. You could say he just rocked on, because until his last days he was busy, caught up in his passion for life in many ways.

In some ways, he was that fortunate person where three things – personality, world view, and opportunity – all came together in one life, and he did much and achieved much.

In personality, he was a man of ideas and principles, and had a passionate desire to express these in a way that made a difference. He had a strong sense of the value of considered opinion, and strength of character that allowed him to live this out in his day to day life, his writings, and in his interactions with others.

In world view, he had a strong Christian faith, a sense that he was a man of God, that we are the hands of God, not here just to live for personal gain but to fulfill a purpose, and that life is sacred and there are high values to be fought for, and at the same time God cares for the individual, and that individual people, including women – especially women – are important and their stories should be sought and heard.

In opportunity, he was a respected health professional, who had the ear of key people in the local and national community, at a time when issues particularly around the end of life issues – at both ends – were being hotly debated in the medical and wider community.

And all this was expressed in ventures that he was involved in establishing or supporting that will continue to function and enrich our community well beyond his life time.

I want to list a few of these ventures, and with this list add some of his brief comments that he once wrote. He was Founding President of the New Zealand Natural Family Planning Association and a member the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child from its inception. He was a member of its first National Executive. He was a founding member and second President of Doctors For Life.

He founded Palmerston North’s Pregnancy Help and facilitated the establishment of Pregnancy Help as a national organization:

‘The only real way to help the baby is to help the mother.’

He was the initiator of the Ministry of Health booklet on informed consent for women considering abortion:

‘(Because a) patient of mine who regretted an abortion (said) “there was never a chance to say no.”’

He was instrumental in the establishment of the Manawatu Pregnancy Centre for women in crisis pregnancies. He could understand why a woman without support in a crisis pregnancy might choose abortion, and he recognised that those who champion the sanctity of life must offer a real and caring alternative.

He drafted a letter sent from a group of medical specialists to Members of Parliament that was a powerful statement influential in the defeat of the Euthanasia Bills of 2001 and 2005.

‘The Hippocratic Oath has made medicine a great profession because it says doctors may cure but never deliberately kill.’

He didn’t just talk. He became an Arohanui Hospice Trust member. He loved the meaning of Arohanui which he interpreted as ‘Full of Compassion’, and was closely involved in the extension of palliative care into Rest Homes and the community, and did statistical analyses and forward projections for Hospice service planning.

He wrote several booklets, including ‘Physician or Social Technician’, a powerful challenge to the medical profession about the role of doctors in our society around the matters of abortion and euthanasia. He organised and hosted visits to New Zealand by overseas experts in palliative care.

He valued the collegiality of trusted friends such as John McArthur and Norman Maclean and the members of the Catholic Doctors Guild.

He was recognised by the Vatican with decorations in 1986 and 1998, and again in 2000 as a Servant of Life, and was made a papal Knight, the highest honour the Catholic Church could bestow on a lay person.

So who was this man, this servant of life?

I’d like to answer that question with a few personal memories that I hope will add to the memories that all of us here today share between us.

He was a man of ideas, and deep spirituality. Often when he came in for a consultation with me about his blood pressure or some other matter he would take a seat and say ‘Murray, I don’t want to keep you long, but you know, I’ve been thinking’. I don’t think he ever stopped thinking! Then, depending on how much time we’d have and how many other patients were waiting he’d talk about an idea that he was grappling with. Early on it was about a venture he was involved in, one of those ventures I have already listed – the Euthanasia debate, the Pregnancy Centre, the Hospice. To him, these were not just community issues, though he was able to tackle them on that level. They were also spiritual issues. And not just Catholic issues, but to do with the spiritual nature of our society.

Later in his life discussions in the consulting room revolved more about the great mysteries of the Christian faith. He was so aware of suffering, and had a strong sense that somehow our suffering and the suffering of Christ are intertwined. As he faced his mortality his spiritual life never wavered, but became stronger, and I was privileged to see this right into his final hours.

He was a practical man, a man of numbers, but with a heart. I have already mentioned the statistical analyses he did for the Hospice. At Pregnancy Centre meetings he would often ask for figures. He knew the value of numbers in influencing decisions, funding applications etcetera. He wanted to know how many women in crisis pregnancies chose abortion and how many continued with their pregnancy. But the women at the Pregnancy Centre have a heart for women first, statistics second. So Sally or Sue would tell the story of a woman whom the centre had helped in the past month, and he would respond, slightly regretfully because he did love his numbers,

‘a story like that is much more important than statistics.’

He was his own man, a strong personality, sometimes a bit forceful. He occasionally talked of the difficulty when he first came to Palmerston North of being a young Catholic doctor and trying to enter the local obstetric fraternity. He had to stand up for himself. I wonder if that coloured his professional life.  When I first met him I was a young doctor wanting to learn obstetrics, and I was rather in awe of this specialist who could be abrasive and unpredictable, until I realised that it wasn’t personal, that he did think about different ways things could be done, and that he did appreciate it if you stood up to him and showed you had thought about things yourself.

He was a man of compassion. Colin Wilson and I were house surgeons on John’s run at different times. We both remember being told by John to ‘go and see that woman who has just had a D&C – it’s not just a miscarriage, you know – she’s lost a baby’. His heart went out to those women. He would say that

‘these women don’t need to hear the discussions about when life begins, they know, that’s why they are grieving’.

And he was a man of principle. Two things I remember him saying about his private practice illustrate this. One was that he made a point at all times of having at least one patient for whom he cared for free, often because of her particular situation, and he made sure that he gave her exactly the same attention and care as he did his paying patients. He said

‘I need to be sure that I remember the importance of every woman I care for, regardless of her situation’.

And in the same vein, he liked to ask women to recount to him the experience of their birth, of what went well and what was difficult. He said

‘listening to their stories is what has changed me the most’.

So to John, obstetrician to many, man of God, Servant of Life. You had stories to tell, and you wanted the stories of women and babies told as well.

You made this world a better place, especially for those who cannot defend themselves, and this legacy will continue.

In bidding you farewell we honour you, and entrust you to the God whom you honoured throughout your life.