“My first goal was to become a professional rugby player, but a long-term injury when we were touring Samoa sidelined those plans,” says Mataafa, 29, who has been named NZNO’s young nurse of the year. He was playing in the 1st XV for James Cook High School – an Auckland college – on tour in Samoa when he sustained a peroneal nerve injury in his foot which has left him unable to play rugby since.
“Now I think it happened for a reason – if it wasn’t for that injury, I wouldn’t be here.”
Back then, however, the 17-year-old went through some dark times over the following months. “I had hopes that I would recover and get back into playing rugby, but it turned out to be a life-long injury,” he said.
“As a person primarily focused on sport, it was a big hit to my self-esteem and took me down to some dark places. But I recovered and got back on my feet and made the best of it,” says Mataafa, who still manages to run and throw a ball around from time to time.
Family support helped him deal with the blow. Family is everything to Mataafa, who emigrated with his father and seven siblings to Aotearoa New Zealand from Samoa in 2002, when he was nine years old after his mother had died in a car accident. “It was a fresh start – with more opportunities and better education,” Mataafa says.
“Dad was such a solid foundation – he was mum, dad and best friend. He’s a key person for me and my siblings.” And when he was grieving the loss of his dream, his father helped him get through. “He encouraged me to think about what I have at the time, and not think about the past but the future.”
Mataafa began thinking about other ways he could support his family and do some good in the community. “For Pasifika and Māori, family is the centre of everything.”
‘For us Pasifika or Māori, nursing is not a new concept. We are nurses from a young age, looking after our mum, dad, aunties and uncles…’
Thankful he had gained enough credits at secondary school, Mataafa decided to give nursing a try, completing a foundation course at the Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT) before enrolling on its bachelor of nursing. “For us Pasifika or Māori, nursing is not a new concept. We are nurses from a young age, looking after our mum, dad, aunties and uncles… it’s just that here you need to be officially registered.”
He was the only male Polynesian student, which was “completely challenging”, but he enjoyed great support from MIT lecturers and librarians, alongside his family. “It was quite intimidating at first, but you get used to it and just get on with it.”
He registered in 2015, taking up a general medical role at Middlemore Hospital, before taking a couple of years off to travel overseas and live in the United Kingdom.
Back at Middlemore in 2019, he worked in the dialysis unit before moving into the hospital’s regional Pacific team, as a case manager. The team works with the New Zealand Medical Treatment Scheme, managing patients from the Pacific region requiring specialised medical treatment.
Mataafa’s manager, Michelle Nicholson-Burr, who nominated him, said Mataafa provided outstanding holistic care, and worked “tirelessly” to ensure every patient, staff and carer interaction met te Tiriti principles.
She said she had never seen such a high standard of professionalism in such a young nurse, despite the stigma he faced at times as a Samoan male nurse.
Mataafa said for him, providing holistic care was just part of being a nurse. “We not only focus on the condition, but their social situation, economic, religious… everything about the person, we consider”.
His workplace provided a very supportive environment for this approach, he said.
Mataafa used his experiences to support other young Pasifika men, Nicholson-Burr said. Mataafa said he enjoyed speaking to high school students about becoming a nurse and wanted to do what he could to support the Pasifika nursing workforce.
Mataafa said he had been “speechless” at being chosen from 20 nominees. His dad was low-key in his praise, saying ‘that’s good, son’, Mataafa said. “I’m sure deep inside he’s very happy.”
The judging panel comprised Counties Manukau District Health Board (DHB) chief executive Margie Apa representing all DHBs, NZNO’s kaiwhakahaere, chief executive and professional nursing staff, NZNO Nursing Education Research Foundation member Melinda Jordan and 2020 winner Kelly Talbot.