Breaking down stereotypes through family values

When Wellington-based vascular surgeon Tokilupe Taumoepeau (pictured) started out in medicine, her team kept a tally of how many times she was mistaken for the orderly or cleaner when she entered a ward in scrubs.

The first New Zealand female and first Tongan vascular surgeon has experienced her patients assuming she is a nurse, or that the male medical student or male junior doctor is in charge during the ward round on numerous occasions.

However, while it is disappointing these preconceptions exist, it has not curbed her motivation or drive to serve her patients to the best of her ability, Tokilupe says.

“I have no doubt the challenges I have come up against have been faced by other women and other Pacific Islanders in medicine,” she says.

“Thankfully, these stereotypes and attitudes are becoming less common, but they do still occur, even now.

“Feeling secure in knowledge I am a good surgeon and am always putting my patients first has helped me bite my tongue at these times.”

Humility, along with smiling graciously and using humour definitely helps challenge people’s presumptuous attitudes about Pasifika, she adds.

Born and raised in Auckland, Tokilupe’s family origins are from Tonga, where her grandfather was an eye-surgeon.

According to her parents, Tokilupe started telling people she was going to be a doctor when she was five, and the dream did not change.

“The inspiration to be a doctor came from my grandfather and also from my mum who has generally always worked in service roles, from cleaning, to retail and more recently aged care.

“My parents placed a lot of value on education, but also on the importance of taking care of people, and contributing to the betterment of others in the wider community – I see medicine as the combination of these values, and really feel blessed I can help my patients to improve their quality of life.”

Tokilupe decided to specialise in vascular surgery after working with a team of amazing vascular surgeons at Waikato Hospital, where she was mentored by two “brilliant, emotionally intelligent male vascular surgeons who had a clue”.

“I was thankful for their guidance, as unfortunately there weren’t many female surgeon role models at the time,” she says.

Tokilupe’s mentors gave her advice about what she would come up against as a woman and as a Pacific Islander, including bullying, racism, and juggling family commitments.

“Their advice to me was to have self-belief and to do my job better than the men – not because I had to, but because I was able to.

“I guess, their guidance and mentor-ship attracted me to the specialty initially, and as I became more exposed to the surgery, I enjoyed the wide variation in pathology and surgical techniques.”

People often assume vascular surgery refers to heart surgery, but Tokilupe says she deals with blood vessels all over the body, outside the brain and the heart.

“We are essentially plumbers of the human body, and deal with narrowed, blocked and dilated vessels, and faulty valves in the vessels.”

After completing her training throughout NZ and in Brisbane, Tokilupe returned to Wellington as a Specialist in 2014, where she has been based since.

While serving patients well is her ultimate goal as a vascular surgeon, she also enjoys teaching and is actively involved in teaching and mentoring medical students and junior doctors.

“I feel strongly about encouraging more women and Pacific Islanders into surgical specialties, and would like to use my role to promote this.

“I would also like to carry out aid work in the Pacific – there are many surgeons who give generously of their time and expertise to patients in Tonga and other Pacific nations.”

Currently focused on becoming established in NZ and building on her experience, Tokilupe says she would one day like to use her skills to help the people of the Pacific.

Taking medicine on as a career is a tough road that takes commitment, resilience and empathy, but the rewards are massive, Tokilupe says.

“If you enjoy problem solving, have a love for learning (as this aspect of medicine never stops, with ongoing advances) and a strong desire to help others, you should definitely consider medicine as a career.

“I know many doctors for whom medicine is a second or third career, so it doesn’t mean that if you haven’t gone to medical school straight from high school, it’s too late.”

The importance of supportive and understanding family and friends cannot be underestimated, the wife, and mother of three-year-old Lachlan, adds.

“The hours of study and work can be unsociable and unfortunately it means time with your family and friends, is sacrificed.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of my family, especially my husband.” …

This article was shared on Specialist Vein Health’s Facebook page and Tonganow – Online Community for Tongans 

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