Aiono Professor Dr Alec Ekeroma was elated when he was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the latest Queen’s Birthday Honours for his services to health and the community.
But he says his biggest achievement in life was returning to his home of Samoa, after forty years, to head its medical school and to pave the way for future Pacific doctors.
“It’s a golden opportunity sent from heaven. I’ve been able to give back to Samoa and develop the various medical faculties,” says Dr Ekeroma, who became the vice chancellor at the National University of Samoa earlier this year. “We normally can’t send all of our medical students overseas, so therefore we need to address tertiary education in Samoa.”
In 1977, Dr Ekeroma left Samoa as an 18-year-old to pursue his medical studies in Papua New Guinea because at the time, Samoa did not have a university. He chose a career in medicine because of the lack of doctors in his country.
“I was looking at an area where I could serve. The main reason for me to be a doctor was because of my lofty ambitions and ideals of helping our Pacific community.”
In 1988, he moved to New Zealand to train and specialise in the area of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. He has since excelled in this area of expertise including the fields of stillbirth, Pacific women’s health and gestational diabetes. He’s also been instrumental in advancing the careers of Pacific medical professionals and is a founding member and former president of the Pasifika Medical Association.
“It has always been my goal to encourage and advocate for more Pacific doctors and medical students. When it comes to responsiveness and relevance of service to the Pacific community, we need Pacific professionals at the forefront in order to address the inequalities of health outcomes for our people.”
Dr Ekeroma has lived by these words. For 10 years, he was the only academic obstetrician and gynaecologist in Middlemore Hospital, responsible for the undergraduate teaching programme. He was an associate professor at the University of Auckland and the head of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Otago University – the first Pacific academic to head a department at the university. This work has made him instrumental in increasing the number of Pacific students at Otago Universities medical school.
He says being recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for his distinguished career, is a humbling experience.
“I wouldn’t have received this honour if it wasn’t for the fantastic work of the groups and individuals, I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside with,” he says.
Even before he became the vice chancellor at the National University of Samoa earlier this year, he played a key role in establishing its medical school and its curriculum. His dedication has also inspired his own children with his son becoming a medical doctor who is now based in Auckland. Dr Ekeroma is so passionate about his new role in Samoa that he’s sacrificed moving away from his family to fulfil his mission of service. His wife, six adult children and seven grandchildren, all remain in Auckland.
“I miss my family. But I feel I’ve got this important job here in Samoa to grow and train more doctors in the Pacific, and that has been a priority.”
Date: Tuesday 16 June 2020