South Auckland doctor Neru Leavasa had it tough as a teenager when he had years of treatments for bone cancer and lung cancer. He pulled through, minus a lung, but there was no show of him realising his sporting ambitions. There’ve been other achievements within his reach, though. As a GP and as a sports doctor. And now he’s embarking on a political career as one of the new crop of Pacific MPs elected last month.
Talofa, Neru. Congratulations on your new gig. Would you mind sharing with us a little of your back story, and what led you to being where you are today?
Kia ora, Dale. Thanks. Mum and Dad migrated from Sāmoa in the early ‘80s. My mum’s from Le’auva’a and Solosolo, and Dad’s from Vaiala and Vaimoso. We’ve still got some family back there, so Mum travels back to Sāmoa regularly, and we do as well.
Anae is my chiefly title, which comes from my grandmother’s village of Falelatai. I help people from there where I can.
I was born here, and we moved from Grey Lynn to South Auckland when I was three or four. I grew up in Māngere and stayed there for 30 years. Our house was next to Manukau Rovers Rugby Football Club and to Viscount primary school. That was handy. I joined the rugby club and went to that school.
There are five of us Leavasa kids. Four boys — Vaifale Melvin, Ennoia, Iutisone, and me — and one girl, Muliagatele Alaisalatemaota Bakulich. She’s the eldest, and the only one born in Sāmoa.
My dad, Faleafa Pita, was Catholic, so after primary school I went to Marcellin College. I did my intermediate years there, and form three. But I have an older cousin, Shalom Senara, who was a rugby hotshot, and he went to Auckland Grammar. My older brother was pulled in to Grammar for rugby, too, and I followed him there from form four.
I suspect that your mum and dad came over to New Zealand with the thought in mind that this would be a good place to raise their kids when you guys came along.
I guess they wanted a good life for us. They came across with my sister and stayed with my mum’s mum, in Grey Lynn. Then they were able to buy the house in Māngere under a Labour scheme where they could get one with a small deposit.
My mum, Olita, became a caregiver, working for Spectrum Care. She did a lot of years there. My father was a security guard. Both our parents really pushed us to succeed academically. And Dad also made sure that we were in sports teams as well and, if a sporting career opened up, well and good. But we had academia as a fallback.
Then my dad developed lung problems. He was often working outside in the cold, and that didn’t help. But he kept on working and struggling, pretty much till he died in 2006.
But we saw the hardships that Mum and Dad went through trying to put food on the table, keep up with the mortgage payments and give us a good education, and I think that really made us want to be successful. We owed that to them.
That’s a common Pacific story, isn’t it? Lots of my friends went through the same thing with their parents, who struggled through so their kids could have it better.
That’s a lovely thing — because in many ways, you’re fulfilling their dreams, aren’t you? By keeping your head down into your books and being successful in your chosen fields. Do you sense that this is what they’d hoped for?
Pretty much, even though all us kids had issues to deal with as well. In my case, when I was at Grammar, I fell ill with bone cancer and lung cancer. Double whammy. So, my secondary years were seriously disrupted.
I was 14 when I was diagnosed, and normally they’d direct kids of that age to Starship. But I was a big Sāmoan boy so I had to have adult drugs — and that had to be in Auckland Hospital. I went through years of chemotherapy and surgeries, and I was shuttled back and forth between Middlemore and Auckland.
The cancer came back twice, and my family really suffered because they were afraid I wouldn’t pull through. But I did, thanks to the doctors and nurses, and a mountain of family and church support. And the road I walked as a teenager led me to choose a career in medicine.
When you’ve been so close to losing your life, Neru, I guess you must celebrate life. Maybe you smell the roses and see the beauty in our communities more than others do? In your case, taking a shine to Māngere even though it’s been much maligned in the press.
The Māngere I know is a beautiful place. It’s so vibrant. And it’s not just the arts. There are now just so many of our kids doing well at school, going on to university and flourishing there.
Aupito William Sio, our MP for Māngere, talks about celebrating the six Bs on his turf. That’s “brown, beautiful, brainy, bilingual, bicultural, and bold”. So yeah, it’s a place to celebrate.
Once you went through med school, you went back to Māngere to serve as a doctor. But no doubt, along the way, there were people who lent you a hand and were significant influences.
The most important were the doctors who looked after me when I had cancer. They sparked my interest in medicine and they inspired me to begin wondering what it would be like to be a doctor.
Every time I’d go to my local GP’s, or to my local orthopaedic doctor, they’d ask me how I was doing with my studies at Grammar or med school — and they’d offer me advice and encouragement. So they’re the people I looked up to.
I know the Auckland med school created MAPAS (the Māori and Pacific Admission Scheme) as a pathway to attract more Māori and Pasifika students into medicine. Did you come down that path?
Yeah, I came through MAPAS which provides some openings for students outside the mainstream to get into med school. But that hasn’t meant there are any concessions from there on in.
MAPAS is only about meeting the needs of the population the healthcare system is supposed to serve. And study after study has shown that our Māori and Pacific people are much more responsive to doctors who look and sound like they do.
People grumble about preferential treatment, as they’ve done at Otago, too. But hey, we still face the same exams. We still come out and face the same issues.
So, I was really glad to come through MAPAS. During my third year at med school, I was the vice president of the Pacific side of the scheme. I worked to keep it a success, and to make sure it tackles the issues our students face during their med school years.
And now you’re looking to get some of that work done using a different tool. It’s politics now. But I’m also interested to learn that you factor spirituality into health. I haven’t heard too many people talking about spirituality as a health determinant. Might you share some thoughts on that?
When it comes to our people, there’s lots of talk about Whare Tapa Whā or the Fonofale model of healthcare, rather than the western model.
As clinicians, I’ve found we still focus on the physical side of things. No doubt that’s partly because of the time constraints we’re under. But there needs to be an adjustment in how we provide healthcare. We need to take a holistic view with our patients, and spirituality is something we should take into account because our people are very religious.
According to the 2013 census, more than 70 percent of Pacific people subscribe to one of the Christian denominations — and more than 50 percent of Māori were affiliated to some religious group.
When patients come in, they’ll say: “This is what I’ve come in for.” Let’s say they’re struggling with diabetes or high blood pressure. But often, if we can dig a little deeper, we’ll expose the roots of what people are presenting with, and we’ll be better able to deal with that.
Let’s say, for example, that we’re kanohi ki te kanohi with a patient whose diabetes is out of control — and who doesn’t always take their medications because they believe God will help them. Or we have a patient who can’t afford their medications because they’re giving most of their income to the church. And they’ll feel condemned if they don’t.
As doctors, I think we focus too much on surface issues. We need to dig deeper and address the whole person. Let’s at least ask whether our patients consider spiritual or religious beliefs important to them. Because this area may be the key to unlocking good health behaviours.
And, if the hospitals have chaplains and chapels on site to help patients, then why not offer pastoral help in primary care?
Treating the spiritual as less important than the physical would be demeaning the power of karakia and the like, wouldn’t it? And you’re confirming that the spiritual side is also important to overall healthcare?
I think that’s where we see a disconnect. Sometimes what we think is important is not important to patients. The people we see have their own priorities, which we must respect — whether that’s church, or getting to their next job interview, or struggling to hold down two or three jobs simply because they’re trying to provide for their family.
As clinicians, we have to understand that there’s a whole background to people’s deteriorating physical health. Rather than judge them, we have to try to help.
And that, in a nutshell, is why I’ve come into politics. I want to try to shift those outside-of-the-clinic issues and help deal with the social problems and the poverty, and the other things which have an impact on the health of our people.
Let’s talk about mental health. Families are often struggling. They could be contending with intergenerational unemployment, poor health, housing, next-to-no income, or lousy schooling. And, if you don’t have mental wellbeing, you won’t have physical wellbeing. There’s a strong link, isn’t there?
When we see people undergoing mental stress, we have to investigate further, because we always find there is a trigger. Sometimes the trigger could be physical issues, such as thyroid function, which can cause depression.
It could be to do with relationships, or poverty, or financial issues. So, I don’t have a kneejerk reaction: “Here’s the medicine.” Instead, I often say: “Look, let’s investigate further.”
Of course, our Māori and Pasifika peoples are intertwined. But Māori have also got the Treaty. How important have you found the Māori drive to hold our partners accountable in making gains in the health scene?
I recognise that if we can improve Māori health, we tend to improve Pasifika health as well. We need to make sure our Māori providers are well looked after, and well-resourced. If we can do that, then our Pasifika providers will do a good job. That’s where I sit.
Tell us more about your decision to get into politics, Neru.
I’ve been a doctor in South Auckland for 12 years now. I’ve run a couple of health trusts in the community, and I’ve tried to be out in the community as well. And I’ve found that there’s only so much we can do within the clinic to help improve the health of our people.
As I started doing more in the community, I wanted to be more involved. I’ve wanted to advocate more on social issues. So, four years ago, I put my hand up for a place on a DHB. I didn’t get in. But that just added to my motivation. And, last year, I stood in the local body elections and was voted on to the Māngere-Ōtāhuhu local board.
Once I started putting my hand up for political roles, people began saying: “Oh, how about you go for central government?” So I did. And I’m pretty stoked that I got elected MP for Takanini.
This is totally different for me. In my med school days, I never saw myself as a politician. But I now see that this is my best shot to improve health and wellbeing not only for Māori and Pasifika, but for all New Zealanders.
And one of the consequences has been my family reminding me that I come from a long line of politicians. My mum’s uncle was Minister of Education in Sāmoa and my father’s dad was Minister of Agriculture in Sāmoa as well.
My middle name is Lealofi, after Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III, who was killed in Sāmoa on Black Saturday in 1929. He was a leader of the Mau movement, which fought for independence in Sāmoa.
After he was killed — he was shot by New Zealand police during a peaceful march in Apia — his son later became the prime minister and his brother became head of state. And later, his brother’s son became prime minister and then head of state as well. And today, my uncle, Tuimaleali’ifano Va’aletoa Sualauvi II, is the head of state.
My mum and dad always wanted us to remember those who struggled for our independence. And I’m pretty stoked that I’m named after one of the Mau leaders, but also stoked to be sitting in government here. I think that’s pretty cool.
It’s very cool, actually. So, you’re in the big house now. You’re a newbie, but in time, do you hope to be tasked with some mahi in the health sector? What goals have you set yourself for your first term as an MP?
We’re the “third formers” as other MPs have put it to me. So first up, I need to learn the ropes. Then, I need to make sure my community is looked after. Any issues that pop up in my electorate of Takanini, we want to address them.
After that, I want to see how I can bring my experience to caucus. That’s my background as a doctor and as a patient. There’s also the local government skills that I’ve picked up in the last year. And I want to make sure that we can deal with the inequities we find in the health system.
Despite the challenges you faced as a teenager, you’ve been a sporty guy. What else keeps you motivated? How do you build up strength to take on each day’s battles?
Before I got cancer, I wanted to be an All Black or a professional athlete. At Grammar, they train you to go for those goals. My family are rugby fanatics, and even after I fell ill, I didn’t put that off. I wanted to be active in sport.
So, I’m not only a GP. I’m also a sports doctor. I’ve always loved that team atmosphere, and that high-performance environment. I’ve looked after both local and international teams.
I got asked to be the Moana Pasifika team doctor for their game with the Māori All Blacks this weekend. I still cover here and there.
Finally, I noticed that you’ve done some work with the Red Cross in the Pacific and with the Doctors Worldwide volunteer organisation. Where did you go? What did you do?
When the tsunami hit Sāmoa back in 2009, I went over as a junior doctor to help out. I linked up with the Red Cross and led one of their teams. And then, 10 years later, the measles outbreak happened and so I got called back over to help in the hospital there.
I try to keep up to date with what’s happening and I’m always keen to help out.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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