Tongan Language Week: Dr Francis Katoa reflects on opportunity to attend the Tonga Medical Association Conference
Updates / News, 6 Sep 23
Stepping into the Tongan Medical Conference was like being welcomed home. Hearing my mother tongue proudly spoken, the sound of Tongan hymns echoing throughout the venue, and seeing our traditional Ta’ovala worn filled me with a sense of peace. This was not just a conference; it was an exploration of our heritage, our challenges as a nation, and our aspirations for a healthier future.

I received the invitation to attend the conference amidst a typical work day and was excited, and admittedly intimidated, when I scrolled through the list of attendees. I was to attend the conference with the likes of Debbie Sorensen, the CEO of the Pasifika Medical Association (PMA), and Sir Collin Tukuitonga, Associate Professor and Dean at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences. Further notable attendees included:

  • Dr. Lupe Taumoepeau: Vascular & Endovascular Surgeon, NZ’s first female vascular surgeon

  • Dr. Kalo Lalahi: Urgent care fellow and PACMAT team leader

  • Dr. Veisinia Tautoto: Physician, and country liaison for PMA and Tonga

  • Dr. Siale Foliaki: Consultant psychiatrist, lead Pacific researcher in Te Rau Hinengaro, the New Zealand Mental Health Survey

  • Dr. Josese Turagavaca:  Chief Surgeon for Fiji Ministry of Health & NSOAP Coordinator

  • Dr. Kolini Vaea: General surgeon, currently working with the PMA team in Auckland

  • Dr. Etuini Ma’u: Consultant Psychiatrist and researcher at The University of Auckland

And then myself, a third year GPEP registrar with a passion for improving mental health outcomes for our pacific community. 

The Tonga Medical Association (TMA) is the Pacific’s oldest Non-Governmental Organization, with the conference marking its 80th anniversary. The momentous occasion celebrates the rich history, notable achievements, and ongoing commitment of the TMA to the people of Tonga. The organisation has played a pivotal role in advancing healthcare throughout the Pacific, with this year's theme being 'Investing in the future of TMA; learning, developing, cultivating – 80 years on'. The conference was held over three days, each filled with beautiful Tongan hymns, prayers, networking, and presentations regarding the current state of Tongan health and areas in which we can improve.

There were also personal stories. Stories of individuals who have made it to the top of their field; from their humble upbringing, experiences during medical school, and to the ongoing challenges faced in their workplace today. As I listened to these remarkable narratives, I reflected on my own experiences which have shaped me both as a person and as a healthcare professional. My parents were first generation immigrants, and like many, had to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Although we did not have financial security, we’ve always had a family unit devoted to caring for and supporting one another.

As the first in my family to attend university, I often felt out of place in the academic environment. To witness the remarkable triumphs of these guest speakers, many of whom had a similar background to myself, was overwhelming and made me feel proud to be a Pacific doctor. Their journey resonates not only with mine, but also mirror the experiences of numerous Pacific and Māori students who've navigated the obstacles of medical education.

As I’d mentioned previously, I was initially intimidated by the conference attendee list; though the purpose behind my inclusion on this journey became apparent with time. Those who have built our healthcare system and inspired our communities will not always be present to lead us. It is crucial to motivate the next generation of pacific health professionals to step into the shoes of our leaders and to play a more active role in our community. This experience has reminded me of my own passion, which is a commitment to improving mental health outcomes within the Pacific community. Despite Pacific peoples being overrepresented in adverse mental health statistics, this is still an issue today which holds particular stigma for our community. My goal is to reach our people on a personal level, and work to dispel this stigma which often acts as a barrier to seeking help.  

After attending the TMA Conference, I am filled with a sense of fulfilment and gratitude. I’ve returned to New Zealand with renewed determination to contribute to the well-being of our Pacific community, and look forward to incorporating what I’ve learned during this incredible experience into my medical practice.