Deirdre never parked her car. She just abandoned it. If she met a friend while driving she would stop to talk and the locals knew they would simply need to wait until she moved on. She was a colourful character at a time when there were many and she was deeply respected as Coromandel’s only doctor. Dierdre was also a very religious person and in her later years she devoted much of her time to sculpting terracotta tiles depicting biblical subjects.
Deirdre Airey was born in Christchurch on 9 December 1926, the only daughter of Bill and Isabel Airey. She was educated at Epsom Girl’s Grammar School and Otago University, graduating MB ChB in 1951.
Following a year as House Surgeon at Auckland, Deirdre went to Britain for further experience, travelling as ship’s surgeon on a cargo vessel. In Britain, she spent approximately two years each in hospitals at Newcastle and Durham, and at Great Ormond Street, London. She spent holidays with friends at Oxford, and there she converted to Catholicism, which was to have a profound effect on the remainder of her life. Travelling in Italy kindled in her a lifelong interest in the visual arts.
Returning to New Zealand in 1960, again travelling as ship’s surgeon, Deirdre was appointed to the position of part-time Medical Superintendent of Coromandel Hospital with the right of private practice. For this job she had to obtain her driving licence and her first car. She was for many years the sole practitioner in general practice at Coromandel, and, when the GP at Whitianga was absent, had to cover the entire Coromandel Peninsula north of Thames. The roads were rough, narrow and winding, and she would need to not only make home visits to remote farms and islands but also to deal with emergencies at any hour. She had a special commitment to the poor and was awarded the QSM.
Deirdre had a keen interest in gardening and was very supportive of moves to preserve the natural environment. She was interested in spinning and weaving and had a great love of reading. She established with others a Shakespeare reading group which met regularly. She wrote articles for newspapers on religious topics, stories, and at the time of her death was busy with an autobiography. However you needed the skill of a pharmacist to read her writing.
Her pottery was fired at Driving Creek with the assistance of Barry Brickell and Wailin Elliott.
Shortly after her retirement from general practice in 1987, Deirdre developed rheumatoid arthritis which rapidly progressed until she was unable to walk. Despite the devastating effect this disease had on her hands, and the fact that for the last 3 years of her life she was confined to a wheelchair, she continued working her clay tiles, and with the assistance of home help was able to remain in her own home.
Deirdre Airey died at Coromandel on 16 August 2002.
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