For Saleimoa Sami’s whaanau, training in medicine was completely foreign. Unfamiliar with the world of academia, the 30-year-old had to navigate studying and ongoing training while also fulfilling his family commitments.
“I was walking on a really fine line of ensuring my commitments to my whaanau were met, but also my commitments to my career pathway were being achieved,” Saleimoa says.
“Although family appreciate what you are going through, when you come across barriers with studying and ongoing training, it’s extremely hard for them to completely understand the sacrifice it takes. My career requires a lifelong commitment to learning, which they find difficult to grasp. It comes down to my family’s experience of seeing, for the first time, someone in their family go through university and ongoing learning. It’s still really new for them, so they’re learning through trial and error as I go along my career.”
Although challenging, the intensive care registrar (background in anaesthesia) at Middlemore Hospital credits his parents for teaching him the importance of hard work.
“My parents migrated from Samoa in the eighties. My dad is from Auala in Savai'i and my mum is from Lepā in Upolu. I’ve got two older brothers and one younger sister. I’m the first one to finish high school, the first one to enter university and the first one to be a doctor in the whole family. Their hard work had a significant influence on me,” he says.
“I feel like I’ve created a trail blaze within my family to show that we can achieve things outside of what we’re used to. I think they’re very proud of me. It just took time.”
Growing up in West Auckland, the ex-Waitakere College student said he was a ‘self-confessed nerd who did well in the STEM subjects’. Transitioning into university to study a Bachelor of Medicine and a Bachelor of Surgery in 2009 at the University of Auckland was like stepping into a different world.
“Coming from a school of a lot of Pacific and Maaori students, then entering an environment that was predominantly Paakehaa, and none of my brown friends coming on the same journey as me, was really challenging. I had to build a different part of my life on my own from foundation up,” he says.
“Throughout my years [at university] it got better through multiple initiatives that supported Maaori and Pacific students, in particular MAPAS (Maaori and Pacific Admission Scheme that supports Maaori and Pacific students studying in health). We were like a whaanau. It was a place where I could identify, have a sense of belonging and where I felt safe.”
A career highlight was going over to Samoa as part of a surgical team from the University of Otago in early 2020 after their measles outbreak to provide support to the National Health Service of Samoa.
“For around two to three weeks in early 2020 I was involved in providing anaesthesia. To work with people who look like me, who sound like me, who have a nose and hair like me, who have names like mine; it was a testimony to the challenges of working in a Paakehaa system in New Zealand, and then suddenly transitioning into a system that I felt completely at home,” he says.
“Being able to teach and pass down new skills and knowledge was extraordinary. It reminded me why this is such a rewarding job and why I strive to continue to learn more because I want to pass that knowledge on.”
Saleimoa wants to inspire young Pacific and Maaori to go into a health career.
“Representation is important. If we have a workforce that is representative of the population that we serve, then it helps with engagement and ensures our patients feel safe and listened to. Having more Maaori and Pacific in healthcare roles means we can navigate our people’s concerns as we have a better understanding of their issues,” he says.
“I would encourage any of our Pacific and Maaori peers that its rewarding to serve the community through healthcare. Yes, there’s plenty of challenges along the way, but it’s definitely rewarding the service you can provide to our people.”
Vaiaso o le Gagana Samoa - Samoan Language Week runs from Sunday 30 May - Saturday 5 June 2021.