Meet Salote Vaai

Girl bosses who brunch is a series which seeks to celebrate the achievements of incredible Pacific women. All of my chats with the various girl bosses take place in a café and we discuss anything and everything ranging from their journey to success to how many people they pashed on the weekend (jokes, kind of). It is my hope that in sharing stories about successful women, this will inspire others to do better and be better.

This badass Doctor recently visited New Zealand and I was very grateful that I managed to steal her away for a wee while, in the middle of her busy trip so that we could have a chat about all the amazing things she’s doing! This beautiful, kind and super intelligent lady is currently working as as a Junior Registrar in Obstetrics and Gynaecology with the National Health Services in Samoa. She is also the brains behind the amazing operation called, Project Paeds. Project Paeds is a group in Samoa, committed to making the experience for children in hospital a little less traumatic and a lot more enjoyable!

When I first asked if I could share her story on TSW, I knew that the ever modest and down to earth Salote would need a little bit of an encouraging nudge. ‘I’m not a boss’ she humbly (and incorrectly) told me, ‘But I do love brunch’. We laughed hysterically and then looked at our waffles with a sad face. Thank you so much Dr. Girl Boss for sharing your story with TSW!
Talofa, talofa!

Tell me about yourself, your family and what you do!  

Talofa TSW! I am from Sataua, on the beautiful island of Savaii. I grew up in Samoa and am the second-youngest of six siblings, with many lively nieces and nephews. I graduated from the Fiji School of Medicine (University of the South Pacific) with a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) in 2011.  I am currently a Junior Registrar in the Obstetrics & Gynaecology Unit with the National Health Services, Samoa.

I know that education is a huge thing in your family, I mean, your Dad is a Supreme Court Judge! You probably had so many people asking you, ‘Are you going to become a Lawyer?’ What pushed you towards Medicine? 

I actually wanted to be a teacher! I thought about Marine Biology too but then realized I could NEVER go deep sea diving (laughs).  I knew I wanted a career where I could work with people, especially kids. I wanted a job where I could help people.
Since then, I have questioned my decision many times (laughs) but all drama aside, this is truly where I feel I have been called to work and thrive.  Many doors have opened for me in terms of learning, meeting inspiring people, training opportunities, growing in my faith and experiencing enriching (and sometimes painful) life lessons.

I wish I was smart enough to say, ‘I wanted a job where I could help people’ and just casually become a Doctor. The last time I said that I wanted to help people, my mum gave me a broomstick and told me to sweep outside. You are clearly thriving and that is incredible to see! As a female doctor working in Samoa, what are some of the challenges that you have faced?

Being frequently mistaken as a nurse. I have a deep respect for my nursing colleagues, but it is the stereotyping that annoys me.  Here we are in the 2016 and people are still convinced that all the doctors must be men and any woman working in the wards must therefore be a nurse.   I am still constantly asked by patients to ‘go fetch the doctor please’ (laughs).

Also, a while back, a male security guard at the hospital made a subtle sexist comment about my hair when I shaved it in a Cancer Fundraiser.  That reminded me that even with all the supposed modernity and fluff about equal rights, some men will continue to objectify women and that is NOT ok. Needless to say, that security guard was sorted and has not spoken a word again to me since. It reminds me to be vocal when necessary, as nicely as possible, and demand change where there is unfairness.

Damn straight! You tell em gurl. I think that it’s so important for women to be vocal in those types of situations because if we don’t stand up for ourselves, then who will? And the more we take a stand against sexist, degrading behaviour, the better, right?! Good for you! Apart from the challenges, what’s the most rewarding part about being a Doctor?

The amazing feeling of handing over a newborn baby to his/her parents gets me every time.  So many problems can occur in any pregnancy, so every time we deliver a healthy, crying baby, we achieve a new goal.  We take women and men into the delivery rooms, and come out with mothers and fathers. That is such an awesome job!

Also, recently, I lost patient who was the sweetest old lady I had ever met.  We always try not to get emotionally attached to patients but she was like a grandmother to all of us, always slipping us fruits and snacks and five dollar notes (laughs).  When she passed, I was at the bedside with her family. She was warm, comfortable, pain-free and ready to go. It was sad yes, but also very comforting to see an old soul like her, pass on so peacefully, surrounded by so much love and acceptance. It is truly a privilege to witness new life and also to be there when one ends.

Beautiful. That’s seriously amazing. While we’re on the warm fuzzy feels, tell us more about Project Paeds. How did this  fantastic idea come to life?         

We were founded in October 2013 when I was working in the Paediatrics Unit and it started with the simple idea of making the Children’s Ward a friendlier place for kids. I was admitted to hospital several times as a child so I understood how unfamiliar it can be.  I wanted children to have a more enjoyable stay in hospital and shared this idea to my colleague Dr. Aiga Sesega, and so, the Project was born.

We started off with decorating the New Children’s Ward then we initiated ‘Cupcake Sundays’ and the ‘Toys for Samoa’ venture.  A team from NZ including my awesome friend Leilani Jackson organized a Toy Drive which resulted in a shipment of several boxes of books and toys to the Children’s Ward.  We have some of these boxes left today but most have been distributed and used during our activities.

We also have ‘Saturday Readers’, where volunteers are invited to read with children as well as ‘Champions’ Fund’ which raises money to finance transport costs for children with Cancer who are on Chemotherapy in Samoa.

INCREDIBLE. I remember you telling me about how there is a young patient who lives in a rural village, far away from the hospital and your team have raised enough funds to pay for him and his mother’s taxi fare so that they will be able to travel to and from his chemotherapy appointments. It’s a fantastic cause and I am really looking forward to seeing more of the great things that you and your team will do. What are your future plans for Project Paeds? 

We are in the process of preparing to build our Outdoor Playground, it’s still in early planning stages. We are also planning on building an Indoor Playroom and will be launching our official website soon. We’ve started having discussions about having Make-a-Wish Samoa part of the Project and involving our Public Sector as partners as well. I have been very fortunate with the Project because I only have to come up with the ideas but it is the community who donate the resources and actually make things happen! And I am so grateful!

Wow, will definitely keep an eye out for all of the above! So, I know that you are a very busy woman with all your side projects and working full time as a Doctor, but do you have any big plans for the near future? Do you think you’ll continue working in the hospital or move overseas, perhaps? What’s the next step? 

When I was younger, my Dad always told me ‘if others can, then so can you’. That reminds me to think big.  I’d like to move on to a Postgraduate Diploma in OBGYN next year, hopefully in NZ (fingers crossed). Samoa has had a chronic shortage of medical doctors so further training can be difficult. I’d like to move into the Obs & Gynae Fellowship Program later, and maybe even study towards an MBA.  Why not right? All are goals which are pretty farfetched at the moment but I know that with much prayer and hard work, all those man-made doors can be flung open!

It’s a challenging feat in Samoa, trying to send people off for studies and maintain the service at the same time. People rave about the lack of speciality qualifications in Samoa and then rage about how we don’t have enough Doctors at the hospital. However, my colleagues are adaptive, resourceful people, and we work hard to accommodate each other and cover in the absence of those doctors away on training.  It’s a process that will take a few years, but hopefully people realize it will benefit us all in the long run.

My heart will always be here in Samoa and I know I will always live and serve here.  This is where I will work to make a change. It’s a challenge, and I intend to rise to it. After all, ‘If not us, then who?’

AMEN sister! I don’t believe that those goals are farfetched at all, especially for someone as successful and hard working as yourself. I am really proud of you and I think it’s great that you’re making the most of every opportunity that comes your way. What’s equally amazing is that with every opportunity you take, you make the effort to give back just as much. We need more Dr. Lote’s in the world! Do you have any advice for anyone who is hoping to follow in your footsteps? 

In Medicine, from my own limited experience, you will likely consider quitting a few times. You must tell yourself that you have what it takes.  You must adapt, learn fast, improvise where resources are scarce, listen well, respect authority but also challenge issues which need change. You will do well to remain close to your families and friends for support, and remember that GOD alone is the great healer.  We are merely instruments.

In saying that, you are also NOT a machine, so when you are sick, see a Doctor (laughs). And if it helps, like me, coffee will be one your closest friends.  And lastly I would say, after your studies, please come home to Samoa to serve. If not permanently, then at least for a couple of years.  Any time and help is appreciated. And you would have much to gain from it too.

Thank you for sharing your story with us, Dr Superstar! Wishing you all the love and luck in the world as you move mountains and change lives. Alofa tele atu.
TSW xx

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