Graduands again this year, Kaitlyn Cocker-Valu (left), Brenetta Pogi and Fuatino Heath graduated with BScs in Anatomy in 2017.
They say good things come in threes.
Kaitlyn Cocker-Valu, Brenetta Pogi and Fuatino Heath, who completed high school, an anatomy degree and now a medical degree together, know that to be true.
The determination, resilience, and teamwork of three best friends have turned their dream of becoming doctors into a reality.
The trio became friends while attending St Mary's High School in Ponsonby, Auckland.
Kaitlyn was one of the first friends Brenetta made when she arrived from Samoa in 2009, and Fuatino joined the group soon after.
“We all come from big families. We naturally gravitated towards each other in high school because of our shared values as Pasifika women,” Kaitlyn says.
Fuatino says all their families were supportive of their collective dream.
“They would rally up to take us to different tutorials and host dinners at each other's houses to bring people in to inspire us to carry through with our dream.”
“We came from a really supportive village around us in that respect,” she says.
They navigated Health Sciences First Year together while staying at Te Rangi Hiroa in 2015, and collectively weathered disappointment after finding out they did not initially get into medicine.
“I remember we called each other crying. Probably the first time we had to confront that fear of failure. We laugh about it now but at the time it was devastating,” Fuatino says.
While all briefly pursuing a biomedical sciences degree, they developed a love of anatomy and switched to a Bachelor of Sciences (BSc).
They graduated together with a BSc in 2017 and learned they were to become medical students not long afterwards.
Kaitlyn says the team at Va'a o Tautai – Centre for Pacific Health became their “Otago family” while in Dunedin.
“We did a lot of our study there for both degrees, a lot of late nights. They provided tutorials throughout. It was almost like our safe space that we were in every day, a place we could claim as our own,” Brenetta says.
While the friends bonded over their shared values and passion for healthcare, they each had their own reasons for wanting to become a doctor.
The three women have known each other since high school.
For Brenetta, from the villages of Palisi, Lepā, Saoluafata and Saipipi in Samoa, it was not just one factor but rather an accumulation of experiences that pushed her to pursue Medicine.
She recalls witnessing the effects limited access and resources in healthcare had on families and communities back home.
“From then I wanted to be part of that group who'll implement significant changes in the future,” Brenetta says.
Her mother passed away from lung cancer within months of moving to Aotearoa, a decision partly made so that she could access treatment here.
“This was for my mum who has been a guiding light throughout all these years away from home.”
Brenetta says “representation and understanding” are the “two big things” she hopes to bring to her practice.
“Many of our people avoid healthcare services due to fear of not being heard or understood. More often than not, provision of adequate care is hindered by miscommunication and lack of understanding,” Brenetta says.
“These are just a few of the walls I would like to break down as a Pasifika doctor.”
Fuatino, from the village of Safune in Samoa and Fakaofo in Tokelau, became interested in healthcare as both her mum and nana were nurses at Auckland hospital.
“We're family, we've gone through so much together. When one of us was low, there was always one person there that was reminding the other two of the end goal." - Brenetta Pogi
“Medicine is the perfect integration of people, service to our community, science and health. It just made sense for me to pursue it.
“My dream is to see health care delivered to a level that I would be happy for my Papa to receive. Given his encounters with the health system, and what many of our Pasifika and Māori patients experience, we have a long way to go before that dream is realised.”
Fuatino hopes to redefine the relationships between doctor and patient.
“There's a lot of things missing in current medicine in terms of warmth, connection and building genuine relationships with patients and repairing the trust that has been damaged in the past.
“A better and more diverse workforce would help with that. Our people deserve to see our people as doctors and to be able to be cared for by them.”
For Kaitlyn, from the villages of Neiafu and Ma'ufanga in the Kingdom of Tonga, an interest in medicine and particularly Pacific health blossomed from the stories and talanoa (conversation) she grew up with and experienced.
Her mum was a full-time caregiver and her papa would tell her stories of the natural medicines and remedies he grew up with.
Becoming a doctor was her calling, she says, because of her “innate desire to bring the greatest care to Pasifika people.”
Fuatino, Kaitlyn and Brenetta attribute much of their success story to their families, their partners and the support of one another.
“We're family, we've gone through so much together,” Brenetta says.
“When one of us was low, there was always one person there that was reminding the other two of the end goal.”
Brenetta says at one point they found themselves growing apart, walking individually in their journeys before reuniting with a “stronger and more mature friendship”.
“In this regard, we have always considered ourselves more like sisters.”
Kaitlyn says Brenetta and Fuatino have been “a real constant” for her in her journey.
“We value each other and how much we each bring to each other. In different ways than we did when we were younger.”
Brenetta and Kaitlyn will be working together at Middlemore Hospital in Auckland and Fuatino will be practicing alongside her partner in Whangārei.
“We want to express our gratitude and love for our aiga, partners and wider support systems,” Brenetta says.
Kaitlyn says they are excited to give back to the communities that shaped them.
“We remain adamant that this dream was made possible by the prayers of our ancestors and the giants who pioneered a path for us. A rising tide lifts all waka,” Fuatino says.
- Kōrero by Keilah Fox