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Queen’s Honour recognition for long-time hepatitis community nurse

Community nurse Helen Purcell has been made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her dedication to supporting New Zealanders with hepatitis B. A long-serving staff member at the Hepatitis Foundation of NZ (HFNZ), Helen says she was touched to hear of the award. 

“I’m overwhelmed to receive such a high honour. I’m passionate about making a difference to people’s lives and helping people with hepatitis B manage their condition. It’s been a pleasure to have worked with so many families around NZ over the years. Thank you to the Hepatitis Foundation’s management for putting me forward for this recognition.” 

Helen started nursing in 1960 and has spent much of her career in public health in NZ, Australia and Vietnam. In 1984, when 93 percent of Kawerau’s population was tested for hepatitis B in a study that led to the introduction of nationwide vaccinations for children, Helen was involved. In 1999, when the foundation needed to grow its patient register, Helen started a community push. She and her fellow nurses towed purpose-built caravans around the North Island, testing people for hepatitis B and providing follow-up support. Education played a huge part in highlighting hepatitis B as a serious health issue. This has always been a key part of Helen’s work. She is now one of six HFNZ nurses responsible for finding people overdue for blood tests. Getting them to look after their own health is not easy, but  

Helen doesn’t like to give up. One patient has nicknamed her the hepatitis hunter due to her  determination to find people with the virus. Another says her tenacity and support saved his life. Helen is now in her late 70s but cares too much about her patients to retire. Foundation  CEO Susan Hay says she exceeds expectations and goes the extra mile for her patients. “She’s a role model for our other nurses and a fountain of knowledge when it comes to liver health. She also excels at building relationships with Maori and Pacific Island patients due to her firm understanding of their cultural needs and practices. This is a vital part of our work.” 

“Many of her current patients are the children and grandchildren of people she supported during the 1984 Kawerau study; she is highly regarded by all of them and has an unparalleled ability to relate to them on their level,” Susan says. “Helen also excels at engaging with rural patients, whose perspectives and priorities differ from those of urban communities. She has good relationships with general practitioners and community health care providers, and is well known for her devotion to and compassion for her patients as well as her realism and sense of humour. We’d be lost without her.” 

Helen Purcell


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