Tonga's first male nurse admits he studied nursing for the "wrong reasons", but is now encouraging other Pacific Island students to choose the vocation he eventually fell in love with.
"It's a bit embarrassing," Sione Vaka says. "My friend and I decided to go to nursing school because we thought it would be good, we would get to look like doctors and meet girls."
Mr Vaka and his friend were the first men to be accepted for Tonga's nursing programme after the gender entry rules changed in 1993.
He had a talent for healthcare and after one year was granted a full scholarship to study in New Zealand.
He completed his bachelor of nursing in three years despite coming into the country with minimal English.
"When I started nursing I found out that I was contributing to society," he says, "especially with the Tongan men who were uncomfortable with the female nurses and weren't disclosing important information."
His degree was highly regarded in Tonga and he was put in charge of a hospital ward, but returned to New Zealand two years later.
The Onehunga resident now works at the Manukau Institute of Technology as a lecturer in Pacific and mental health and is studying towards a PhD. He also helped design the bachelor of nursing Pacific degree, which is tailored towards cultural ways of learning and is now in its second year.
The class is about a third the size of the mainstream version and allows for more one-on-one teaching.
Mr Vaka says nursing is a good pathway for Pacific people.
"Our statistics speak loudly," he says.
"We have poor health and live in low socio-economic areas, but our number of people in the nursing workforce is low. We need to make it more equal," he says.
The Statistics New Zealand website shows Pacific Island people are much more likely to develop heart conditions, stroke or diabetes than their Maori or Pakeha counterparts.
They comprise nearly 7 per cent of the nation's population, but only 2.8 per cent of enrolled or registered nurses.
Mr Vaka says a higher concentration of Pacific health workers can help make others more aware of cultural differences.
"Even about things like eye contact," he says.
"If a Pacific person is not looking at you in the eye, they are not being rude, but it's that you don't look somebody superior to you in the eye."
Pacific Horizon Health Centre clinic manager Jennifer Tuagalu says the ability to speak Pacific languages is what makes a difference to its services.
The Blockhouse Bay clinic services a patient base that is around 95 per cent Pasifika, and has several Pacific Island nurses and locum doctors on staff.
"It is quite hard to find experienced people, and that's what we look for."
She says health workers who speak a Pacific language are rare.
"It's nice to employ them but only a few speak the language, and that's a real barrier," she says.
But Mr Vaka says there are always job opportunities in nursing, as well as opportunities to develop in specialist areas.
"There is always a place there that you will be able to help people," he says.
"That's what keeps me going in mental health, when you see somebody that is stressed and broken but you help them through it and it's quite rewarding."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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