When Denis Friedlander arrived in Hamilton in 1966 with his wife and two young children, the reception did not bode well. It was a Sunday. Keys were provided for temporary accommodation on the grounds of Waikato Hospital, where the current blood bank is currently located. The house was dirty and mostly empty. There was a bed, a table, four chairs and a noisy fridge.
Dr. Friedlander had been appointed as Waikato Hospital’s first cardiologist. He came with a quiet ambition and a wealth of experience gained in the UK. In time, he would effect a transformation of cardiac care in the region, establishing the Coronary Care Unit, the Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory, the Marathon Club and the Halcyon Club for Cardiac Rehabilitation. He would also play a key role in raising funds to support such initiatives, inspiring the formation of the Waikato Heart Trust and becoming a trustee of the foundation. In thirty years of career in Waikato, he saved hundreds of lives.
Denis Hugo Friedlander was born on October 22, 1931 in Auckland, the second son of Eric Friedlander and Inez Friedlander (née Wily).
Denis’ primary education was enjoyed at King’s School, Remuera. A photographic memory enabled him to overcome early dyslexia which made reading and writing difficult. He topped his class in math in his senior year. An avid runner and cricketer, he won the under-11 steeplechase race.
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As a boarder at King’s College, Denis excelled academically, earning a college scholarship. Achievement in music theory was not quite matched in practice, but led to a lifelong interest in classical music. He represented the school in the run and opened the batting for the opening XI.
Prior to grad school, Denis worked for a soft drink manufacturer cleaning upturned bottles. During subsequent holiday periods he would find employment in a woolen shop and a flour mill and drive a lorry for Winstones Ltd. Having had some sort of sheltered upbringing and private instruction, such life experience would prove invaluable in his future medical practice.
After a successful middle year in medicine at the University of Auckland, Denis attended medical school at the University of Otago, residing at Knox College.
Graduating in late 1955, Denis first worked as an internal surgeon, general medicine/cardiology, at Greenlane Hospital. After witnessing the first cardiac catheters, Denis decided to become a cardiologist himself. Unfortunately, a plan to replace the incumbent Cardiology Registrar fell through when the gentleman chose not to leave his post.
Denis decided to continue his training in Europe. Traveling to the UK as a ship’s doctor, in exchange for free passage, saw him perform an emergency appendectomy, receiving advice over the radio from a distance of around 1000km.
After passing the Edinburgh College of Physicians exams, a prerequisite for a specialist position in New Zealand, Denis took up an unpaid position where he met Margaret Scott, a staff nurse. After a date or two, a well-timed expression of feelings as Margaret left on the train sealed their relationship. They were married at the Old High Church, Inverness in August 1960.
Accepting a post as a registrar at Harefield Hospital in London, Denis learned how to make straight heart catheters. After a stint at St. Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, he returned to Harefield as Senior Registrar. He passed the examination of the London College of Physicians, an even more prestigious qualification. Denis and Margaret bought and sold two houses. Their son Neil was born in 1964, their daughter Clare two years later.
With cardiologist jobs being hard to come by in the UK, Denis applied for the job at Waikato Hospital. If the accommodation was taken in default, with a wait of four months before the arrival of their furniture, the professional promises made were also not kept at first. A proposed cardiac catheter lab, which Denis said would be part of the new clinical services block (the current Waiora Waikato building), was not part of the planning. Instead, he had to oversee the design of two temporary labs and associated facilities from scratch, something he had no training for.
The coronary care units were then considered experimental. Under Denis’ direction, one was created in the Hocken toilet block, opening in mid-1968. Accustomed to supporting radiologists and specialized nurses and technicians, Denis had to both improve his skills and set up a formalized training course, supplemented by written and oral exams. It proved to be empowering for nurses, a practice that one colleague said was 30 years ahead of its time.
Denis and Margaret decided to build a house not far from the hospital. During construction, the same storm that sank the Wahine flooded its first level. Rory, Denis and Margaret’s third and last child, was born the following year.
In the 1970s, Denis created the Halcyon Club, a weekly meeting of coronary patients with supervised exercise, group therapy and a risk factor clinic. In 1972, suspecting that Hamilton was out of touch with cutting-edge cardiology, he took a three-month sabbatical in the United States, returning with new ideas. When one, a portable 24-hour heart rate recorder that patients could wear at home, was turned down by the National Heart Foundation, he decided to start his own local fundraising agency. , The Waikato Heart Trust.
Money raised by this organization – now simply The Heart Trust – became a critical factor in the development of cardiac services in the region, including cardiac surgery, electrophysiology and TAVI (the procedure by which heart valves are inserted through the leg rather than the chest).
Along with his colleagues Dr Clyde Wade and Dr Hamish Charleson, Denis played a crucial political role in establishing Cardiac Surgery at Waikato Hospital in 1989, providing decent access to cardiac services for the Midland region until then. underserved. Indirect benefits include the development of New Zealand’s first 24/7 angioplasty service for heart attacks and TAVI, the success of which has led to similar procedures across the country.
Denis was an excellent clinician, skilled in cardiac procedures. With patients he was calm, with a dry sense of humor, delivering jokes with a straight face. Aware that research showed extramarital affairs to be a risk for coronary patients, when asked about resuming sex after heart surgery, he replied in a low voice: “That’s fine – but no excitement – just the woman!”
After Denis retired in 1996, Waikato Hospital named its enhanced Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory facilities the Friedlander Suite and his senior colleagues honored him with Consultant Emeritus status. He was elected president of the New Zealand branch of the Cardiac Society. In the 2007 New Year’s Honors he was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
Denis supported Margaret through her long battle with multiple sclerosis and decided she would not go to a care facility.
In 2007, when Margaret’s illness reached its worst stage, her daughter Clare moved home. Over the next three years, Denis formed a particularly close bond with Clare’s sons, Jackson and Oliver, a relationship from which he grew stronger, particularly after Margaret’s death in 2010.
In retirement, Denis, a one-time marathon runner and skier, walked 10 to 15 kilometers every morning, while continuing to work three and a half days a week. He hit a golf hole-in-one after 40 years in the game and another just a fortnight later. He led an impressive social life, regularly attending concerts. Diagnosed with motor neuron disease in June 2020, he continued to write and enjoy the company of old friends and colleagues.
Proud to have reached his 90th birthday, Denis Hugo Friedlander died a little over two months later, on December 30, 2021, at his home in Tamahere, surrounded by his family. He is survived by his three children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.