Rob Riley


In 2014 Nelson Youth Council conducted a series of interviews for Heritage Week 2015. They spoke with people involved in areas of health and medicine and this is one of the stories which was displayed in Elma Turner Library.

Dr Rob Riley GP (MBChB. Dip Obst. DA. Dip. Sports Med.  FRNZCGP)

Rob Riley’s father was a doctor, as was his grandfather, so despite his father trying to steer him to a career in law, the pull to be a doctor was too strong.  Rob duly completed his medical degree in Dunedin, where years before his grandfather had been the first Professor in Obstetrics. This family example may also have influenced Rob to gain his Diploma in Obstetrics with Dr Brian Neill in 1975.

Rob enjoyed delivering babies for the next 33 years. Even when Prime Minister Helen Clark’s changes to maternity service delivery in the 1990's saw a large percentage of doctors in general practice dropping this service, Rob continued to deliver babies until 2008.

While Rob was working as a house surgeon at Nelson Hospital in 1975 he came across an advertisement looking for Himalayan volunteers in the New Zealand Medical Journal. He and wife Leigh decided to apply for this exciting opportunity and were chosen by the VSA to work at Kunde Hospital, built by the Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation, close to the foot of Mount Everest. They stayed for two years during which time Rob became interested in joining the general practice of Brian Hardie-Boys, a well known GP in Nelson.

Nelson HospiceNelson Hospice in Manuka Street
Click image to enlarge

Prior to taking up his position with Hardie-Boys in 1979, Rob gained his Diploma in Anaesthesia in England. This skill was put to good use from 1979-1984, as Rob was on the Nelson Hospital surgical roster to provide his professional services.  This study of anaesthesia led to a further interest in pain management. Rob embarked on the study of acupuncture in China in 1981. On his return he was one of the first GP’s in New Zealand using acupuncture in his range of treatments for patients in pain.  This in turn was to lead him to an ongoing involvement with palliative care and the development of the Nelson Hospice.

Before there were specialised palliative care facilities, the majority of terminal cases were cared for within hospitals. This meant that the end stage of life was poor for many, as much of it was spent under a pain suppressant known as “Brompton’s cocktail” containing morphine, heroin, cocaine, and ethyl alcohol. This was used particularly in the late stages of cancer and is now obsolete, as it had negative side effects such as agitation, confusion and nausea.

The “Hospice at Home” service began in Nelson in 1986 which meant that nurses and doctors came to patients' homes to give care and symptom relief. For twelve years services were based at a residence, Sally McCormack House, on Waimea Road. Rob worked as a volunteer for this organisation for many years, and became a staff member when the Manuka Street Hospice was created in 1999 after the Health Funding Authority signed a contract with the Nelson Region Hospice Trust. In 2003 the initial four bed unit was increased to eight palliative care beds, as well as two for longer term care, due to increased demand. Rob retired from his hospice work in 2012 but still continues to care for his practice patients at home or in the hospice.

Rob feels patients have the right to die in dignity and comfort. “Death is a time of great emotional intensity, like birth is… a challenging journey for all the family who come together at this time. Just as I would work as co-ordinator/ mentor/ coach in a birth situation, I do so in death, facilitating a smooth release in an atmosphere of love and support”

In 2014 Dr Rob Riley is still a committed GP, running a busy practice in Nelson city and enjoying variety in his life. Interest in his children’s sports led to getting a Diploma in Sports medicine and being the doctor for the Nelson Giants and Nelson Bays Rugby team. He was the medical co-ordinator for the visiting teams during the Rugby World Cup games in Nelson in 2011. Friends who knew of his collection of flags from around the world donated a flagpole for his surgery on Collingwood St. He continues to fly flags on this which reflect current events happening around the world.

Rob retired in March 2021.

Interview by Sophie Ross 2014, edited by Debbie Daniell-Smith (updated July 2020)

Updated March 2021

Sources used in this story

  • Interview with Dr Rob Riley, December 2014

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