New Zealand's new Junior Doctor of the Year Tawa Hunter on her journey to her true calling

It might have taken Te Whānau-a-Apanui descendant Dr Tawa Hunter a few years to find her true calling, but the Rotorua-based mother-of-five not only fulfilled her dream, she's just been named the top in her field as Aotearoa's Junior Doctor of the Year.

Having left school at 16 years old, Dr Hunter took more than two decades to make her decision to apply to study medicine at Auckland University Medical School.

"I was just probably at a crossroads in my life where I wanted to reconsider my career and maybe go back to the drawing board and think about doing something else," she tells The Hui.

"To be honest I was quite naïve when I made the decision. I didn't really know what was lying ahead of me and how fiercely competitive it is to get into medicine."

Dr Hunter has five boys - her eldest is now 27 and she had her third son in the middle of her studies. 

"I was a solo mum at various times in my life and had times on the benefit. Financially that's a struggle, and again, and all of those other negative connotations that you get coming at you, those were some hard times. I think it just gives me a bit of a better understanding of what it might be like for other people and to be able to step in or be in their shoes," she says.

It took eight years for the 45-year-old to complete her medical degree, largely thanks to the sacrifices she and her whanau had to make.

"It hasn't been easy. The most brutal years of medicine are obviously the first year where you are competing to get into medicine. You have to get an A-grade average, you can't get anything under that or you won't be considered," Dr Hunter says.

Dr Tawa Hunter.
Dr Tawa Hunter. Photo credit: The Hui

The Māori and Pacific Admission Scheme (MAPAS) aims to increase the number of Māori and Pacific health professionals, but Dr Tawa says there is still a notion that it affords these groups preferential treatment.

"There's a lot of negative reaction to us as MAPAS students, and you often hear about it in the hallways and you just feel that you're not there on your own merit. You know you are, because you've done all the work and passed all the exams but that makes it a bit more difficult to get through," says Dr Hunter.

Last week the Medical Council revealed that Dr Hunter was the top junior doctor in the country, acknowledging her work with Māori whanau in the area of organ donation.

"I never ever in a million, billion years thought I'd be standing here in this position. If this inspires other people to maybe do the same thing or find something else that they're passionate about and gives them the courage to do it, then that would be awesome," Dr Hunter says. 

"I'm not in this job for me, it's about being in a privileged position where I can serve those people."

Made with support from Te Māngai Pāho and NZ On Air.

New Zealand's new Junior Doctor of the Year Tawa Hunter on her journey to her true calling