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Faumuina Professor Fa’afetai Sopoaga: "I see my role now as investing in the next generation, growing the Pacific health workforce. To serve is a privilege. Leadership is about serving. It's about caring."

Faumuina Professor Fa’afetai (Tai) Sopoaga's peril-pocked story has more tragedy and triumph than one life ought to have girth for. The girl who left Samoa at the age of 16 to pursue higher education in New Zealand eventually became the first female medical doctor of Pacific descent in Australasia to be made professor (2020). But not before she'd faced several mammoth curveballs.

When Sopoaga arrived here in 1984, she was a hope-filled, independence-ready teenager. She was granted a scholarship from the Government of Samoa to study medicine with the expectation she would return to serve her country. She completed her last year of secondary school at Timaru Girls' High School before heading to Dunedin for the holy grail: Medical School.

But during that first year at Otago, her life was upended by the sudden onset of a debilitating illness: lupus. "I was devastated. This was my only chance for higher education because my parents couldn't afford to send me away. The stakes were high for me. I had to succeed."

That determination proved no match for lupus though (the word is Latin for 'wolf' for good reason). "I could not continue my studies and became deeply depressed. I just shut down, didn’t speak, and lost the ability to see colour – I could only see black and white. My precious mum came to take me home, bless her heart."

Sopoaga says it was through prayers and the care of her parents (both church ministers), family and community, that she began to mend. "I looked out the window one day and saw a red hibiscus. I could see colour again – and knew I was healing." She recovered enough to reapply for Medical School and was told she'd need to pace herself. "It was very difficult. I had surgeries along the way. I was continually tired."

It was not just low energy levels that tested her mettle. In fifth-year medicine, she was taken to task by a bullish consultant during a seminar. "I felt humiliated. I went home and cried for five days and decided not to sit my final exams because I didn't want to be in a profession that wasn't caring of its people."

With encouragement, she sat and passed those exams and used the experience to inform her own approach to teaching. "I thought to myself, ‘gosh, there must be a better way to teach medical students rather than just scaring them’." (Sopoaga's way was better: she went on to win the Prime Minister's Supreme Award for tertiary teaching excellence in 2018.)

After graduating, Sopoaga worked as a junior doctor in Samoa for two years before returning to Otago for postgraduate training. That was when she received the next body blow: "I was told I had two necrotic hips, lupus nephritis, and my liver functions were concerning. My rheumatologist said, 'you're as sick as a dog – you have to get off the ward'. If I wanted to live long I'd need to stay in New Zealand and look for ways to give back to Samoa. Additionally, I'd have to train in areas my health could support – psychiatry, radiology or public health."

Sopoaga chose the latter and began her stint at the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine in the 1990s. She thrived under the mentorship of Emeritus Professor Charlotte Paul and the leadership of Emeritus Professor Sir David Skegg. She missed patient contact though, so undertook GP training. The mix suited her well: "Public Health has a population approach and general practice keeps your feet grounded."

Those feet were soon un-grounded by yet another health wallop: she was diagnosed with breast cancer and required to step back from clinical work to undergo treatment. By this stage, she was well used to the art of pivoting: "I've learned over the years that in God there is a purpose – that if one door closes, another opens. As [Pastor] Chuck Swindoll said, 'We are surrounded by a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.'"

In 2009, a new door opened: Sopoaga was appointed Inaugural Associate Dean of Pacific in Health Sciences. She led the incorporation of Pacific health into the medical curriculum, including the immersion programme (where medical students increase their cultural understanding through immersion within Pacific families). She advocated for additional senior Pacific leadership roles across Health Sciences and advanced her research interests in Pacific health workforce capacity-building and transition to higher education.

Now Director of the Va’a o Tautai, Centre for Pacific Health, Sopoaga has been able to extend tangible help to other Pacific countries, especially Samoa. She assisted the development of its medical school, led the mobilisation of Samoa Doctors Worldwide Volunteers in relief efforts for the 2019/2020 measles epidemic, served as New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade Health Advisor in Samoa during COVID-19 (for two years), and is now Health Advisor to the Samoa Ministry of Health. Her efforts have not gone unnoticed there: her family conferred on her the high chief title 'Faumuina' from her village of Fagaloa.

Sopoaga received another gong in 2022: she was appointed a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Pacific health and tertiary education. But she is less interested in chatting about that than on pondering her next contribution.

"I see my role now as investing in the next generation, growing the Pacific health workforce. It's lovely to look up and see the faces of all these students who are going to be the future doctors. To serve is a privilege. Leadership is about serving. It's about caring."

Sopoaga's Inaugural Professorial Lecture was titled, 'Dare to be wise. Dare to succeed. Dare to care. Pacific aspirations in Aotearoa’. When asked if a sense of daring has been the defining quality of her journey, she says, "Yes. I had to dare to leave my cocoon in Samoa. Then, when I got knocked back and failed, I dared to come back and try again. When I got breast cancer, I dared to believe that I could still serve."

Tai's full Christian name is Fa’afetai. In Samoan, that means 'thank you'. It's a fitting name for someone whose career has been marked by unwavering service and gratitude.

Watch her IPL: "Dare to be wise. Dare to succeed. Dare to care. Pacific aspirations in Aotearoa."

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