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South Auckland teenager with heart condition defies odds, now studying to be a doctor

Mary Afemata

Olisa Faatupu has never let a heart condition stop her from pursuing her dreams - and now she is working towards an even bigger dream, to become a doctor.

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

The 17-year-old, from Māngere, South Auckland, is one of 16 students awarded the Milford Foundation Scholarship this year.

Up to $300,000 will go towards supporting those students, as well as 14 other young people now in their second year of tertiary study.

Olisa, who graduated from Māngere East’s Southern Cross Campus last year, was born with a serious heart condition that meant she spent a lot of time in hospital, growing up.

“When I was young, there was a leak next to one of my lungs that affected the oxygen to my heart. I spent more time in a bedroom than I did in a classroom or at home.”

A family’s sacrifice

While she doesn’t remember the pain at the time, seeing the pain on her parents’ faces and their concern for her stands out in her mind.

“We weren’t in a financially stable place and to be in the hospital and having to sacrifice, like having to leave work to come to my appointments,” she says.

“One thing that I noticed when I was young was the only person that would be working was my dad. My dad would have three different jobs and throughout the day he would kind of go to the job, come back home, eat and then sleep - and then go at it again.

“It [got] to a point where you start to feel like you want to take a bit of responsibility. You feel like it’s your fault.”

Because she had to spend so much in hospital, Olisa was often behind on her schoolwork and behind her classmates.

“I just hated not knowing how to read, not knowing how to do maths as quickly as everyone else.”

Aware of her health affecting her attendance, Olisa was motivated to work hard and achieve academic success.

She acknowledged that for many Samoan families, education is a ticket to success.

“It’s either you do well in the classroom or you do well on the field.”

Over the years, her hard work saw her named as the Dux in her last year of primary school and was the top of her year level in year 9, year 10. She was runner-up top student in year 12.

At her high school graduation, she was named year 13 Dux with a list of excellence-level marks in her subjects and accolades that were still being read out as the crowd started to clap and cheer for her.

The dream to becoming a doctor

Olisa is one of eight children and hails from the Samoan villages of Papa Sataua and Si’umu on her mother’s side and Vaigaga and Lefagoali’i through her father.

She is the first person in her aiga to attend university and is now enrolled in her first year of Health Science at the University of Otago.

The difference between Auckland and Dunedin has been a culture shock for Olisa, who says she cried when her parents left.

“I was basically surrounded by families in Auckland. So it is kind of weird being in a whole different environment without family.”

Her scholarship will see Olisa receiving a flexible support package of up to $10,000 per year for her undergraduate qualification.

“I want to be a doctor to support patients who feel disadvantaged due to health conditions and have a poor family background.

“This scholarship is another step forward in breaking the poverty cycle and proves I can be more.”

Hero Image: Olisa Faatupu pictured at her high school graduation in 2022 with her proud parents, dad Eteiato Vaiouga and mum Pulou Faatupu.

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