Columnist Jay Fleitman: Back from New Zealand

  • This June 27, 2016 photo shows Doubtful Sound, a remote fjord within Fiordland National Park in New Zealand’s South Island. AP Photo

Published: 4/1/2019 10:00:11 PM

Some 3,000 years ago, early navigators with little technology left the Philippines and began a wave of colonization that first led to Australia and Papua New Guinea, and then swept across thousands of miles of open ocean to the islands of the South Pacific.

Evidence suggests they even touched the coast of South America. The last place they landed about 800 years ago was on the islands of what is now New Zealand.

We have just returned from four weeks in New Zealand. There is much to say about this nation of just 4.5 million people, with its beautiful black sand beaches, towering glacial topped mountains, tropical coastal forests, volcanic pools, and pristine turquoise lakes. It has an idiosyncratic birdlife born of eons of geologic isolation.

The native Maori population and New Zealand’s European descendents are still working through the politics of coexistence and integration. We stayed with friends in the city of Christchurch, and toured the remaining damage from the devastating 2011 earthquake, which includes the odd sight of building facades that remain propped up by towers of shipping containers that prevent collapse while they await repair.

We left Christchurch to go on our travels just two days before the recent horrific mass shooting in which a gunman killed 50 people at two mosques. This small nation, which is not as accustomed to this kind of event as we in the U.S. and Europe have become, was shocked and stunned.

For some of our time in New Zealand we joined a tour that took us hiking, bicycling, and kayaking. We usually like traveling on our own, as trip tours can be odd things. There is this social aspect of 10 or more perfect strangers being tossed together for two weeks of meals, hours of van travel, and trekking. It can be like a season of “Survivor,” only no one can get voted off, and that may be too bad.

When this group first gathered together, Penny, a tall, lanky woman in her late 40s from Hawaii with shoulder length blonde hair and deeply tanned skin, asked the tour leaders for help in recovering her computer tablet, which she had just left in a taxi. Certainly, the tour leaders wanted to get on the road, but were gracious in assisting her. After all, this could happen to anyone.

As we got to know Penny, we found that this episode was symptomatic of problems that bedeviled her. She was now in early retirement, having spent her career as a nurse in the Army. She had spent years stationed in Iraq under active duty. She had not only delivered nursing care to the military, but was also tasked in missions delivering health care to the local population. She was angered about these missions, and saw them as futile as she felt the Iraqis did not appreciate those efforts, and she knew of local officials stealing the resources the military left behind for local use.

She said that even as a nurse she had seen active combat. She handled a roof gun on a Humvee, and had been in one when it was blown up by an improvised explosive device, or IED. She had suffered significant head trauma. She needed multiple surgeries for reconstruction of her lower face and teeth.

Penny’s speech was slow and soft and sometimes slurred. She was bothered by problems of memory. These are the signposts of her head trauma.

She was very open about the chronic depression from which she has suffered since the injury, and related that her physicians have had considerable difficulty managing her depression. She talked about her embarrassment of being unable to conquer this disability, and how she struggled through it while trying to maintain her relationships with her daughter and grandchildren. As she talked about this, her sadness and her pain would wash across the features of her face.

Toward the end of the tour, some of us went off for three days of kayaking, some went mountain biking, and four people took off for a very difficult three-day hike. Penny joined that group, and she was very apprehensive about carrying a 60-pound backpack over a trail requiring a climb of 3,000 feet over a boulder-strewn mountainside. Many of us in this group were apprehensive for her. It was not clear to us how good her judgment was about doing this.

We all rejoined after three days at a New Zealand winery, and Penny had successfully managed the very strenuous trail. Her worry that she would fail at this hike had cleared, and for the first time during these two weeks she was animated and smiling. She had a reprieve, however long it would last, from the burdens she carried from her injuries.

Jay Fleitman, MD, of Northampton writes a monthly column. He can be reached at

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