Dioxin report a good start for whistleblower

Sep 12, 2004

Hyacinth Henderson 87yrs

Hyacinth Henderson 87yrs

After waiting 39 years for vindication, it is a strong woman who can resist the temptation to publicly say “I told you so”. Hyacinth Henderson manages it quite well.

Surely she wants to say it, even quietly? But even when pressed she just laughs, her eyes lighting up behind her glasses.

“No, I’m just not that kind of girl.”

Anyway, she says, the vindication is not complete.

The Ministry of Health report which last week revealed higher-than-average levels of dioxin in the blood of Paritutu residents is only the first step towards answering the questions Henderson first posed all those years ago.

Why were so many babies being born in Taranaki with horrendous birth defects, and could it have anything to do with the chemical factory in their back yard?

Henderson’s story has been told several times this week.

While working as a midwife in Taranaki in the mid-60s, she was disturbed about what she felt was an enormous increase in the number of babies being born with abnormalities.

Her concerns were shared by one doctor who was finding the same thing in Opunake.

But the health bosses did not want to know, even when presented with six years of data and photos, compiled by Henderson, of all the babies.

The only response she got at the time was a letter from authorities saying there probably wasn’t a problem in the area and that she might have thought there was only because of the meticulous record-keeping she was doing.

A sort of “keep up the good work but go away, please” letter.

“So I gave up then. I could tell they were never going to listen with that attitude.”

Meticulous is a good word to describe this 87-year-old. Compassionate, independent and feisty are others.

Henderson says it is probably genetic – she had five sisters, all born and bred in Dunedin, all good Otago stock. Two others also took up careers in nursing.

One was the matron in charge at a New Plymouth hospital.

She wanted an overseas holiday, so she roped in little sister Hyacinth to take charge in her absence.

She returned from holiday, but Henderson didn’t leave the region.

And despite the “horrors upon horrors” she saw there, Henderson’s six years in Taranaki were obviously some of her happiest.

Taranaki evidently liked her, too. When she finally left, moving back to Dunedin to retire, the staff at New Plymouth’s Westown Maternity Hospital commissioned the carving of a toko toko (walking stick) for her farewell gift.

The figures on it depict Mt Taranaki, the hospital and a baby, and after 30 years of use it is still in tip-top condition.

“I use it, but I do look after it. It’s one of the most precious gifts I have ever been given.”

Even the way it was presented is something she treasures. It wasn’t the average office farewell with a speech and a gathering of everyone to see what the proceeds of the whip-round had produced.

Instead, two of her former staff made the trip to Dunedin. They laid the toko toko on the floor where Henderson almost tripped over it.

“They said ‘pick it up, it’s the challenge’. So I picked it up.”

Does she still like a challenge? “Depends on what it is, these days,” she grins.

“Sometimes, just talking is a challenge, but this week I’ve managed a fair bit of that.”

Babies have always been precious to Henderson. She reckons it is in the blood. Her grandmother was the midwife for St Bathans, in Central Otago, more than 100 years ago.

By the time she retired in 1977, Henderson had delivered thousands of babies.

She has plenty of stories about those thousands of births – and is more than happy to tell them – but no individual baby is a highlight. “All babies are lovely.”

During her career, Henderson worked in Dunedin, Blenheim, Hastings and Taranaki.

She has a post-graduate degree – something few others had in those days – and it helped her into running various maternity hospitals and made her the pseudo-paediatrician for New Plymouth when it didn’t have one.

As a academically-minded midwife she developed a fascination for premature births – she doesn’t know why expect perhaps because she was one herself – which led to another research project into prem babies’ survival.

And that leads to another good story.

Many years ago the midwife who delivered Henderson – “Miss Holford. They didn’t have first names in those days” – was speaking at a conference in New Plymouth on premature births.

On instruction from her mother, Henderson introduced herself, and was amazed to find the then 90-year-old midwife still remembered Mrs Henderson from Dunedin.

“Of course, I’m not that fazed now. I’m nearly 90 and there are a lot of mothers I still clearly remember, if not the birth of their babies too. At the time I thought she was rather amazing.”

While at the conference, Miss Holford fell and broke her leg. Her age and lack of family support meant she spent her remaining 10 years in hospital, much of the time under Henderson’s care.

And when the 100-year-old woman died it was Henderson who laid out her body.

“So she saw me in and I saw her out.”

It’s one of many parts of Henderson’s life that seem to have come full circle. She and her parents lived on the Otago Peninsula, and now she lives there in retirement, in a house she had built 30 years ago overlooking the harbour.

In that time her mobility has become restricted and her hearing is no longer 100 per cent, but “the view from up here is as good as it ever was” she says.

The gardening is now someone else’s responsibility, as is the house cleaning, but you quickly get the idea that firm instructions are still given on how both should be done.

The release of the Ministry of Health’s report has meant for a busy week for Henderson. She fits in the Herald between television interviews and the red-hot ringing of the phone. And she hasn’t said “I told you so” once.

She may yet get the chance. In her research into premature babies’ survival, she discovered a way to help those struggling for breath.

Blood tests showed babies with respiratory problems had high acid levels in their system. A small dose of bicarbonate of soda neutralised that.

“I never lost a baby after trying that technique,” Henderson says firmly. “Not one.”

Again, authorities weren’t interested in her ideas.

But recently her local GP mentioned her soda theory to a Dunedin paediatrician.

“He said it was interesting to hear what had been tried in the past, especially when it had success, but I don’t know if he’ll take it any further.”

And if one day her experience becomes the basis for a medical breakthrough?

“Well, they’ll have to hurry if I’m going to be around to hear about it,” she laughs, feigning indignation. “I’ve waited long enough for this New Plymouth one. I’m not sure I’ll be here in another 40 years.”

By MONIQUE DEVEREUX | 5:30 AM Sunday Sep 12, 2004 | nzherald.co.nz 
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