Tagata Pasifika

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Dr George Ngaei (CNZM): Resilience and determination against the odds

Invercargill-based surgeon and Pasifika Medical Association member Dr George Ngaei FRACS is among those recognised in the 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours list. He was appointed a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to health and the Pacific community. Throughout his career as an endoscopic and gastrointestinal surgeon Ngaei has used his expertise to address Pasifika inequity in various aspects of the medical industry in order to improve and uplift community access to health services.

“I’ve been lucky, I have had a very supportive family over the years, it’s been a difficult journey but there’s still major hurdles for us to address inequity and the various manifestations of racism. But, we’ve shown we can do it and it’s a matter of working together as a people to achieve our goals.”

It’s the second time Ngaei, a proud Rarotongan, has received a Queen’s Birthday Honours recognition and says the response from the Pacific community has been overwhelming.

“It dawned on me that this really was something and that it wasn’t just an achievement for myself but also for our whole community.”

Born in Rarotonga “under a mango tree” Ngaei left his homeland when he was 12 years old after receiving a scholarship to study in New Zealand.

“I came to New Zealand on the Maui Pomare (banana boat). There were six students in our group and I was the youngest at the tender age of 12. I had to find my way from Queen Street to Whenuapai airport and then catch a plane to Napier. After a month of crying into my pillow at night without any obvious gain, I decided to harden up and get on with life the best way I could without the support of family or peers.”

With the aim of following in his father’s footsteps as a doctor, Ngaei was eager to study science at Napier Boys’ High school but despite his good grades he was denied access to study any STEM subjects.

“I had high grades at school but I was put down a class in third form and then I wasn’t allowed to do science or languages. As a Pacific Islander they considered that I was just not up to it emotionally. I was made to do agriculture and learned how to milk cows and fix tractors. It wasn’t until I was fifth form I was able to study science.”

“I had to fight to even get into the University of Otago after high school. The then Department of Island Territories had this mindset that I wasn’t good enough to embark on University studies. There have been hurdles throughout my career but I early on learnt strategies to allow me to get on with my chosen path,” he says.

Back then, Ngaei was one of three Pacific Island students at the university all of them he says were “without family support in a new and very competitive environment”.

Ngaei says he was “mind blown” when he went back to the campus in 2019 as a guest speaker and saw the auditorium was packed with Pacific students and families.

“A lot has changed since my time, it’s so great to see.”

After graduation Ngaei spent two years in Christchurch as a junior doctor before returning to Dunedin as a Surgical Registrar. At the same time, he studied for a Fellowship of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (FRACS) qualification.

“At the time, this was regarded as near impossible. On top of a full working week, and in my first year of marriage, I committed to studying six hours a day, for six days of the week. I don’t know how I did it,” he laughs.

“When I passed the full qualification which, is a two-part process, I was given the pick of all the jobs at the training posts in Dunedin and was offered a University of Glasgow Commonwealth Scholarship to complete my post Fellowship surgical training.”

From Glasgow, Ngaei was asked by his mentor, the late Professor Alan Clarke, to take up a dual University of Otago/Otago Hospital Board appointment at Southland Hospital and set up the undergraduate and post graduate surgical training and gastrointestinal endoscopy. He has chosen to remain in Invercargill ever since.

“Making a positive difference to people’s lives and mentoring and advocating for Pasifika medical students and surgeons have been the main highlights in my career. Surgery as a craft is associated with a complication rate that at worst causes severe disability and death. I have always strived for best practice and excellence in surgery.”

Ngaei has also remained close to his home in Rarotonga where he has continued to visit and assist in matters related to health.

In 2002, Ngaei established a Pacific Island Specialist Nursing Service in Invercargill with the Pacific Island Advisory and Cultural Trust (PIACT) and in collaboration with the Southern District Health Board. He later became the Chairman of PIACT in 2007.

“I had knowledge that our Pacific community was not getting a fair deal on health and knew there were only three Pacific nurses working at the hospital. So, establishing this service was a simple and cost-effective means of improving health access and care for our Pasifika community when they came into the hospital or primary health centers. The fact that the service is still in existence is
testament to its value.”

In 2014, Ngaei became the Chairman of the South Island Pacific Providers Collective.

This year, he retired from being a representative for the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons on the Southland Medical Foundation. But, remains as an advisor to the Ministry of Health and Government of the Cook Islands and has just recently joined the board for the Cook Islands Development Association New Zealand (CIDANZ).

Pasifika Medical Association Group

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