A lot of us know Vanisi Prescott as TikTok’s Dr Nisi Prescott. Since the pandemic, she’s had a popular presence online — communicating information about vaccines and other health issues. Here, we hear a bit more about her story and how she became a doctor. She’s talking to Teuila Fuatai.
I was one when my mum Olivia Prescott and I arrived in New Zealand from Tonga. Mum’s dad was already here. They’d lost touch and she came over to find him. After they reconnected, we ended up staying because Mum fell in love with New Zealand.
It was a real struggle to make ends meet. Mum was a single parent and new to New Zealand. We’d left my dad and older brother in Tonga, so it was just the two of us. Mum didn’t know her way around Auckland, and finding a job was tough.
Her first job was in a factory. In the evening, she was a cleaner, and later on, she got a job as a caregiver at a rest home. Mum worked at least six days a week and juggled three to four jobs.
It meant I often stayed with my grandparents or aunt and uncle, or I was home alone. Sometimes I went to work with Mum. I remember being quite young and sleeping on the couches of the offices she cleaned. Sometimes she’d even set up a bed on the floor for me, and I’d fall asleep as she vacuumed around me.
As a kid, I saw how hard my mum worked, and the toll it took as she tried to get us settled. When she was home, I never wanted to bother her about anything. I just wanted her to rest and sleep. She was so independent and determined, and she never wanted to ask anyone for help. From a young age, she instilled that work ethic in me, and it’s a big part of why I’m a doctor today.
Mum was adamant that I should get a job that gave me options in life. She wanted much more for me than she ever had. Her expectation was that, once I finished school, I’d go on to university. Then, with my degree, I’d get a good job which would bring security and stability.
And I believed wholeheartedly in that. But, in reality, things were pretty tough.
All through school, I struggled academically. And because mum was so busy working so many jobs, I managed to hide how bad things were from her.
At primary school, I used to forge her signature in my reading log book so it looked like I’d completed everything when I hadn’t. And because I was alone a lot at home, I never really got the support I needed with my reading practice. I tried my best to sound out words, but without someone to help and correct me, it didn’t take long before I fell behind the other students.
Mum and I also moved around a lot which didn’t help. I‘m not quite sure why, but as a kid, I didn’t think much of it and just did what I was told. I ended up going to about eight different primary schools. I hated school because I had to try and make new friends each time we moved.
I also remember how I learned to make do with very little. From a young age, I made my own lunch with whatever was in the cupboard. Sometimes all we’d have was bread and butter. There’d be no Gladwrap, so I’d just butter some bread and chuck it in my school bag.
Most of the time, I was too ashamed to show people my lunch so I wouldn’t eat. Friends also offered me food because they felt sorry for me. At one primary school, free lunches were provided for students who didn’t have their own. I’d get a muesli bar, a piece of fruit, a juice box and a sandwich. I thought that was amazing, and that being a rich kid with all these things all the time must be great.
I remember one Pākehā friend who used to complain about how she was sick of her lunches. Every day, she’d throw her lunch in the bin, so her parents would think she’d eaten it. Once she walked off, I’d grab it from the bin and find somewhere private to eat it. For me, food was so scarce, so I never wanted to let it go to waste.
Because I needed lunch so often, the school got concerned about what was happening at home. I didn’t want them disturbing my mum, so eventually, I stopped getting the free lunches. I was so determined not to be a burden and only ever wanted to be helpful and make things easier.
Looking back, I’m not sure how I managed some of the things I did. For example, at one place we lived at, after walking home from school, I’d often sit outside waiting for Mum to finish work. It would get so late and dark that our neighbours would come out and put a blanket over me.
By the time I went to intermediate, I was in the lowest class. I hated it because I was bullied a lot. I tried so hard to fit in, but I wasn’t cool or smart enough and I struggled to make friends. Then, when I started high school at Onehunga High School, it was the same thing — I was put in the learning assistance class.
In that class, it was mainly Māori and Pacific students. They were essentially the naughty kids, who either wagged school or ended up in the principal’s office for bad behaviour. Most of the students weren’t interested in learning and they’d yell at the teacher, disrupt lessons and throw pens around.
To the whole school, we were known as “the dumb class”. On numerous occasions, I was teased and bullied by other students for being “ugly” and “dumb”. It made me so insecure, and I started to doubt my worth and existence. I remember so many times getting home at the end of the day and crying.
I hated my life so much. I remember thinking that something had to change — that I had to get out of the learning assistance class. I wanted to prove the bullies wrong and make my mother proud. So I chose a seat at the front of the classroom and ignored what happened behind me.
Because I was interested in learning, the teachers gave me a lot of attention. I think they saw potential in me. Their willingness to help and to engage with me gave me the confidence to ask questions whenever I didn’t understand something. With their support, I worked really hard and made a bit of progress in the classroom each day. By the end of the year, I was top of the class.
When I came back the next year, I moved into one of the mainstream classes — and that’s where I stayed until the end of high school.
Even then, I just scraped through. I didn’t get School C — I think I only passed my science subjects. I’d always loved science, and always did the best in those subjects. For Bursary, I passed maths and the science subjects and didn’t do too great in English.
I didn’t have the grades to get into an undergraduate degree programme at university. However, I got accepted into the Certificate in Health Sciences programme, a one-year course that’s specifically for students like me — Māori and Pasifika who want to do an undergraduate degree in the sciences but haven’t quite reached the academic level required for entry. The programme is also targeted at students who want to study science at university, but haven’t done any high school science subjects.
I still had so many doubts about my ability to achieve academically. There was always a voice in my head saying I wasn’t good enough, and that I didn’t belong at university. Much like my first year of high school, I spent that year willing myself to do better and working very hard. I leaned heavily on my support network, which included my family, and other students and staff from the university’s Māori and Pacific Admission Scheme (MAPAS) for medical and health science students. They were always there to provide help and guidance when I needed it.
With time, my faith grew stronger and the self-doubts eased. I started to think seriously about a future career, and when I passed that year with flying colours, I knew being a doctor was exactly what I wanted to do.
I got into the Bachelor of Health Sciences programme — a prerequisite year for medicine. It was a huge jump academically. My grandfather also died that year, which made things pretty tough. While I got through the year, my grades weren’t good enough to get into medical school. I decided to do the Bachelor of Health Sciences degree first, and then reapplied to medicine as a postgraduate student and got in.
To add more to the mix, halfway through my second year of med school (now my fifth year of university), I fell pregnant.
I was already finding it quite difficult. The workload was two to three times what I’d experienced in my undergraduate degree. I also had morning sickness and was exhausted. I was pregnant, studying and working part-time to help with the bills at home, and it was a lot to juggle. I ended up being quite hard on myself, and often questioned why I’d put my dream at risk by getting pregnant.
When I sat my final exams that year, I was seven months pregnant. I failed one paper, and was nine months pregnant when I went back to re-sit it at summer school. Our daughter Zephaniah was born two weeks later, and shortly after, I got an email to say I’d passed and was through to the third year of medical school.
I know now that Zephaniah was a blessing in disguise.
I struggled so much for so long, and when she came along, she gave me my reason to keep going. Zephaniah gave me a purpose. I didn’t take any time off my studies, so she’d come with me to lectures and tutorials. She’d sit there in her capsule, and sleep pretty much the whole time. With all the students around, she had lots of babysitters, and eventually, she became known as the med school baby.
In many ways, my family — first Mum, then baby Zephaniah, and my husband Jovan and our two youngest Jazelle and Baker — has always shown me exactly where I should be.
I’m now a fellow in two specialities: urgent care and general practice.
At med school, I initially wanted to pursue a career in obstetrics and gynaecology, or paediatrics. I love women’s health and working with children, but I couldn’t bear seeing the sick babies in hospital. Often, they’d remind me of my own babies, and I’d end up in tears.
I had Jazelle and Baker in my first couple of years as a junior doctor which added another layer to life. It didn’t take me long to see that the 60-hour weeks, night shifts and 12-day work stretches as a hospital doctor were incompatible with having a young family. I wanted to spend time with my kids and be there for them.
So I left the hospital and moved to an urgent care clinic at White Cross, then Three Kings Accident and Medical centre in Auckland, where I trained as an urgent care specialist. After I passed my exams, I decided to specialise in general practice as well because I wanted to get to know my patients in much more detail.
Being an urgent care doctor, and a GP, means you work in the community, and there’s a lot more flexibility to your schedule. I also work a lot with Pasifika families and students. I can’t emphasise enough how important that is. As a doctor, patient, and family member, I’ve seen the difference it makes when the person you’re seeing looks like you and shares your background.
One of my inspirations for being a doctor was my family’s own GP, Dr Debbie Ryan. Debbie is Sāmoan and used to work in Glen Innes, not far from where my grandfather lived. I absolutely loved her. I was in awe of her when I was growing up because you just didn’t hear of doctors who were female and Pacific. I just thought: “Wow, if Dr Ryan can do it, so can I.” Now, when I see her at health conferences, I thank her for inspiring me.
I also wanted to help my family. We struggled with health literacy, like a lot of Pacific families. We’d go to our doctors’ appointments and wouldn’t understand the medical jargon — and we’d feel out of place. I wanted to break that barrier.
As a GP, all those early experiences have come full-circle.
Recently, I finished a two-year stretch at the Stoddard Road Medical Centre in Mt Roskill, which has a lot of Pasifika families, including a large number of Tongan patients. I was the only Pacific doctor the practice had ever had, and my Pacific patients and families would get so excited when they saw me.
During that time, I also worked one day a week at the local high school, Mt Roskill Grammar. Some of the students I saw at the school clinic were from families I also saw at the GP practice.
Most of the time, the students wanted to talk to me about sexual health and mental health. Many of our Pacific students found it difficult to speak to their own family members about these topics. By seeing them at school, we could talk openly about their concerns, without their families there.
One student, for example, would book in to see me every week at the school clinic. She suffered from severe mental illness, and over time, during those school appointments, we worked on her confidence and other issues, and her mental health improved.
But she didn’t want her family members finding out. Of course, we respect confidentiality, unless the patient is high-risk, which this student wasn’t. However, her mother was also my patient, so I was able to have very general, high-level chats with her about mental health and different types of conversations parents might have with their teenagers, and why some children find these topics difficult to bring up. I also got a better understanding of the family’s home setting, which was helpful.
That reinforced how important it is to have Pacific staff in those youth health services. When I worked at Mt Roskill Grammar, I was the only Pacific face there and I was always fully-booked, sometimes double-booked. So, I’m a huge advocate for health services that have Pacific and Māori health professionals, especially in lower decile schools where there’s lots of Māori and Pasifika students.
Through TikTok and my other social media platforms, I’ve also found different ways to connect with people and patients. I started using TikTok during the first 2020 Covid lockdown. Zephaniah got me into it. We both love to dance, and eventually she got sick of me using her account so I set up my own one.
My first video that went viral was a version of a video a female doctor from the US had made where she pointed at various roles she’d been mistaken for. I did the same thing, as a Pacific female doctor. I’ve been mistaken for an orderly, a cleaner, and the girl who collects the food menus. I’ve even walked into rooms where patients tell me they’re waiting for the doctor because they assume that can’t be me.
The video blew up and I started getting a lot of followers. People wanted to know how I became a doctor, and what it was like.
After that, I realised I could use the app to inspire others with similar backgrounds. I want people to know, especially our Pasifika youth, that they should chase their dreams. Most of my followers are Pacific. A lot are in Auckland, but many are also spread around New Zealand. Through TikTok and my social media platforms, I’ve shared my own struggles and talked about my journey.
When Covid happened, I also wanted to tackle some of the misinformation that was going around. Even among my own patients, I saw how it stopped people from doing the basics to prevent the spread and severity of illness.
Taking that topic on was an eye-opener. Until then, I’d never had bad feedback. When I shared information about Covid and the vaccines, I got a lot of negative comments, threats and even death threats. Both in person and online, I’d get comments questioning the science. Some of my patients would mention how uncomfortable they were with the vaccine rollout, and how a lot of the information supporting vaccines seemed fake. They also had a lot of valid questions around vaccine safety.
A lot of people found the measures around vaccination very intense and forceful and wanted to talk about it. I used the comments and questions on social media to communicate what the public health safety measures were based on.
A lot of the good feedback I received was because I was Pacific. People liked the fact that Covid information was coming from a Pacific doctor, rather than a Pākehā person or the government. I’d get comments about how it felt more genuine and relatable.
I’ve continued to use my social media platforms to promote other things I’m passionate about, including rheumatic fever and gout. Recently, I’ve been part of the campaign promoting HPV self-test kits.
We know there’s significant ethnic disparity in cervical cancer rates, and Pacific people have disproportionately high rates. We also know that cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers if it’s picked up. That’s why regular smears are so important. However, 85 percent of people who develop cervical cancer in New Zealand have never been screened or have been screened infrequently. A lot of Pacific women fall into that group because we find smear tests too invasive and get embarrassed. I know that because my own patients give me excuses to avoid getting their smear.
The self-tests are a game-changer because it removes that barrier. I just give women the kit, then they go to the toilet and do the swab themselves. It’s so easy. I believe it will reduce the gap in screening inequities — and that will flow through to reducing and preventing the severity of cervical cancer in our women.
It’s this kind of work and advocacy, where I raise awareness of a Pacific health issue as a Pacific doctor, that I love doing. One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that people trust my information, online and in person, because I’m Pacific.
It’s why I believe in health responses and initiatives that are led by people from our communities.
Any change that’s going to be effective and meaningful has to be driven by us because we’re best placed to understand what needs to be done differently for our own families. I want us all to understand what goes into our health and wellbeing, and the different things that affect it. That’s about a lot more than changing the statistics around disease rates and vaccinations. It’s about health literacy and knowledge and shifting health responses and systems so they actually embrace Pacific needs.
Every now and then, I like to reflect on how far I’ve come. I often think back to when I was sitting in the learning assistance class and feeling like a complete failure — like I’d never go anywhere. I compare that with the satisfaction and reward I’ve found in my career today.
I know the difference just a couple of people can make and the positive influence it can have on your life. For me, it was my mum and those few teachers who truly saw my potential and believed in me.
Vanisi Prescott is an urgent care doctor and GP. She was born in Tonga, and is from the village of Tokomololo in Tongatapu. Vanisi moved to New Zealand with her mother when she was one. She grew up in Auckland, where she lives with her husband Jovan and their three children.
As told to Teuila Fuatai. Made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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