Dr Tokilupe Taumoepeau

2015 Dr Tokilupe TaumoepeauDr Tokilupe Taumoepeau, not only the first Pasifika woman doctor with a specialist qualification in vascular surgery but also the first New Zealand woman vascular surgeon in Australasia, shared her story after being awarded Baradene College's Meritae Award for 2015. The award pays tribute to a Baradene Alumna who has embraced the philosophy of the Sacred Heart in her everyday life.

For Dr Lupe, the inspiration for her career came from her grandfather, who was an ophthalmologist in Tonga. "We were very close, and I grew up wanting to be like him; I wanted to be a surgeon from the age of five."

Initially drawn to a career in plastic and reconstructive surgery, Dr Lupe chose vascular for its mix of pathology, reconstructive and fine work, as well as the ongoing development of minimally invasive techniques. "In vascular surgery, a successful procedure gives instant gratification, knowing your patient will be so much better for it."

Her parents were born in Tonga and came to New Zealand in the 1960s, raising their children with a strong sense of Tongan culture. "That was so we would identify as Tongan New Zealanders," she says. Pasifika and Maori people are overrepresented in all the risk factors relating to vascular diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol. "Even though they suffer the effects of such conditions earlier, patients often present late as they can find the hospital and health systems quite daunting. If I can be one brown face that these patients can identify with, perhaps I can make their experience less stressful."

When asked about her time at Baradene, Dr Lupe says one of her early memories was from a camp on Motutapu Island. "Who could forget sleeping overnight on the beach and the flying fox landing in the mud pool?! And the confidence course certainly stood out as a highlight." She recalls shaking in her harness, palms sweaty, and trying not to vomit on friends below. "It was hard to see how walking across a rope 10 metres above the ground or hopping from one eight-metre platform to another was going to be good for me!"

But this was just the first of many opportunities at Baradene to help build confidence as young, aspiring leaders. "The culture at Baradene allowed us to celebrate being a woman, and I left never doubting that I could achieve whatever I wanted to," she says. "Medicine is an incredibly rewarding career, and I would strongly encourage women to take it up. Sixty percent of my medical school class were female. Women in surgery are also slowly growing in numbers, although we remain a minority."

Dr Lupe believes it is important to have visible role models for women in an industry dominated by men, which is why she is actively involved in teaching medical students. As a member of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons Women in Surgery Group, Dr Lupe also works to raise the profile of women in surgery on an international level.