Doctor in the stadium
With four degrees and a couple of postgraduate diplomas from the University of Otago, Greg Macleod has landed his dream job – as team doctor for the Highlanders.
It seems almost inevitable in hindsight that Dr Greg Macleod would turn his passions for sport and health sciences into a career.
The Highlanders Super Rugby team doctor was a champion rower in his birth country of South Africa: he was an age-group rowing champion for five years, was awarded Springbok colours for rowing and represented South Africa at the world junior rowing championships. The avid sports fan also played first XV schoolboy rugby. “I went to King Edward VII School in Johannesburg, where rugby is a big part of the school life.”
Macleod studied human movement sciences at the University of Pretoria before emigrating to New Zealand in 1998. (He followed his family here after his father secured a job as a Ministry of Agriculture veterinarian in Thames.) The 20-year-old immediately embarked on serious full-time study at the University of Otago, where he completed four degrees (in physical education, science, physiotherapy, and medicine and surgery) and a couple of postgraduate diplomas (in sports medicine and child health) over the next 13 years.
“Its reputation and status was a big part of it,” Macleod explains, “and Otago was the only university that was offering many of the things that I wanted to study.”
He cites anatomy as his favourite subject. “It’s a fascinating subject for me. There is so much to know and knowing it well gives you confidence in your job. There was one lecturer in anatomy, Dr Latika Samalia, who was so passionate about teaching and I think that rubbed off on a lot of people.”
Macleod says he also values the things he learned that went beyond knowledge of the subjects. “I certainly acquired some of the skills that stand you in good stead in life: communication skills, the ability to relate to people and to understand their point of view, and to think about things critically when you make a decision.”
For most of his time studying at Otago, Macleod was a housemaster at Dunedin’s John McGlashan College, responsible for the residential care of more than 100 adolescent boarders each year. The workaholic also simultaneously worked part-time in various, often overlapping, jobs, including tutor, physiotherapist, health promoter, and medic in the Royal New Zealand Army Medical Corps.
A further part-time role served as a good training ground for the job of Highlanders’ team doctor. Macleod was the strength and conditioning coach for the North Otago and Otago rugby teams as well as an assistant to the Highlanders.
Volunteer work with Special Olympics’ athletes and being a part of the medical staff for Masters’ Games in Dunedin further whetted his appetite for sports medicine. So, too, did a three-month sports medicine elective in Barcelona, where he worked with a professional basketball team in the European League, JCB Badalona.
Macleod worked as a house surgeon at Dunedin Hospital for two years before joining the Highlanders as the full-time team doctor in 2012.
He says the majority of his work involves thinking ahead. “After a game we are treating the injuries that players have picked up, but we are also trying to forecast where the person is going to be in a week or two’s time and what we have to do in terms of rehab to get them stronger so that it doesn’t happen again. When we go to South Africa, we need to think ahead about what we need there. We don’t have the same level of support as we do here.”
At 36, Macleod is three years younger than the oldest Highlanders’ player, Brad Thorn, and not much older than a few of the other players.
“That has its challenges and its benefits. In hospitals, you sometimes get older patients saying, ‘Are you really a doctor? Gosh, you don’t look old enough.’ The plus side is that it helps you relate to the players from a ‘stage-of-life’ point of view and forge a level of rapport with them – particularly those with families of their own, who must also spend days and weeks away from them while playing games away from home.”
Macleod says the most common ailment he treats isn’t directly related to rugby. “Probably coughs and colds, to be honest. It’s amazing how many times in sports medicine a lot of the stuff you are dealing with isn’t strictly sports injuries. If a player gets a cold, it is going to keep him out of training and playing just as much as an injury. We obviously also get lots of common sports injuries – particularly shoulder and ankle injuries. Concussion is another one we pay special attention to.”
Occasionally the non-rugby conditions are by far the most serious. Macleod had to break the news to Highlanders’ winger Buxton Popoali’i that his heart condition meant an end to the 24-year-old’s blossoming rugby career.
“It was heartbreaking. I didn’t know whether to be disappointed or relieved about it. I was bitterly disappointed for Buxton and felt like the bad guy for breaking the news but, at the end of the day, if he had kept on playing it could have been fatal.”
Although he was born and raised in South Africa, Macleod says there is no question of divided loyalties when the Highlanders are playing South African franchise teams.
“Not at all. Where you come from and where you feel your home is, are different things. The Highlanders have been a big part of my life. It’s my team. It’s Highlanders all the way.”
In the medium term, Macleod aspires to emulate one of his sports medicine mentors, Professor Dave Gerrard (Dunedin School of Medicine) and serve as the team doctor with a New Zealand Commonwealth Games’ or Olympic Games’ team.
Meantime, work and family continue to keep him super busy. His wife, Dr Emily Macleod, is a lecturer in psychological medicine at Otago; they have a two-year-old son, Freddy, and another son on the way. Outside of work and family, Macleod has an affection for classic cars, motorbikes and collecting fountain pens.