New Zealand’s first female vascular surgeon on smashing stereotypes

by Sharon Stephenson / 30 May, 2019
RelatedArticlesModule - female

Dr Lupe Taumoepeau. Photo/Victoria Birkinshaw

Caring for others runs in Dr Lupe Taumoepeau’s blood. In the latest issue of Fashion Quarterly, Sharon Stephenson talks to the woman who is smashing stereotypes.

Twenty four. That’s how many times Dr Lupe Taumoepeau has been mistaken for the cleaner when she’s entered an operating theatre.

New Zealand’s first female vascular surgeon – and the only Pacific Island female vascular surgeon in Australasia – rolls her eyes when our conversation finds its way to the repeated case of mistaken identity.

“Sometimes people think I’m a nurse,” says the 38-year-old. “I’ve also had patients say to me, ‘You can’t be a surgeon,’ because of my age, gender or ethnicity. It’s sad that unconscious bias still exists, that people don’t see women of colour in positions of power. Thankfully, it’s slowly changing.”

Between sips of coffee (black, no sugar), the mother of four-year-old Lachlan admits she tries not to buy into it. “Feeling secure in the knowledge that I’m a good surgeon and always put my patients first has helped me bite my tongue when it happens.”

Born in Auckland to a tight-knit Tongan family, Lupe was the oldest of two girls (sister Nanise is a pathologist). Her father, who came to New Zealand from the tiny village of Kolofo’ou in 1966, was an accountant. Her mother worked mainly as a cleaner for a rest home. Family and community were everything. “There’s a strong service ethic in the Tongan community, to look after each other and put others first.”

It’s what led the Baradene College Head Girl to a career in medicine.

“I was five when I started telling people I wanted to be a doctor. It never felt out of my reach, which is probably why there wasn’t a plan B.”

She also fell under the gravitational pull of her paternal grandfather, an eye surgeon in Tonga, and many holidays were spent watching him work. “I found it amazing you could change someone’s life for the better with your hands.”

Although academically gifted, Lupe admits the trifecta of hard work, laser-like focus and supportive environment propelled her through her studies. “Mum encouraged us to do well and I was also surrounded by really strong female role models at school.”

Despite having high enough marks to enter Auckland University’s School of Medicine general admissions scheme, Lupe chose to apply under the Maori and Pacific Island category. The affirmative-action scheme is often attacked by critics who claim it allows for lower-quality candidates and shows favouritism to certain students.

Applying for that scheme was about solidarity, says Lupe. “It was about identifying as a Pacific Island woman who wanted to study medicine and be supportive of others doing the same.”

At medical school, Lupe bumped up against the same criticisms, the first time she’d experienced racism.

“I grew up in Remuera and even though my family was a minority there, I was never exposed to racism. But at med school I’d regularly hear comments such as, ‘you Maori and Pacific Island students get a free ride,’ which is crazy, because once you get into med school, you have to pass the same exams as everyone else.”

After graduating, Lupe spent four years as a junior doctor at Waikato Hospital. Inspired by a female orthopaedic surgeon, she initially flirted with the idea of specialising in orthopaedics, or even plastic surgery. But working alongside three male vascular surgeons proved a turning point and, despite a lack of female role models, and stiff competition to get into the five-year vascular training programme (which takes only 11 doctors a year across Australasia), Lupe was the first female New Zealander accepted into the programme.

Lupe calls vascular surgeons the “plumbers of the human body”. “The body needs blood vessels to get blood to and from various organs. We operate on blocked blood vessels all over the body except for the heart and brain.” That includes everything from aneurysms (dilated blood vessels) to varicose veins and patients who’ve had strokes. She chose this speciality because it’s one of the most difficult.

The year before Lupe started surgical training, she met husband Alan Douglas, a former policeman. The pair were set up by her brother-in-law, also a policeman. They married in 2011 and four days later, Lupe started her surgical career at Wellington Hospital.

Never one to shy from extra work, in 2014 she opened a private clinic, Specialist Vein Health, with a surgeon friend. It makes for a busy week, with Lupe spending around three days in the public system and the rest at her own practice. Along with on-call duties, an 80-hour working week is not out of the question.

Squeezed in around that is teaching vascular surgery to medical students and interns, as well as mentoring junior doctors. “It’s about offering pastoral care and advice, because starting out as a doctor in a strange city and a strange hospital can be a massive adjustment.”

She’s also passionate about encouraging more women and Pacific people into surgical specialities.

“When I was growing up there were few female role models, so I’m honoured to be one.”

Early on, advice from fellow female surgeons was that it was almost impossible to combine a career with motherhood, so for a long time Lupe was on the fence about starting a family. But around the time she moved to Wellington, she realised she could do both, and son Lachlan was born in 2015.

Ask Lupe about her career highlight and there’s that eye-roll again. “Honestly, it was surviving the first year of being a working mother! I thought I would have this motherhood thing down, but it was a struggle. Having to adapt to high-stress situations at work when you’re sleep-deprived and have ‘mummy brain’ isn’t easy.”

When Lachlan was two, and it became clear Lupe’s long hours and Alan’s shift work weren’t a good mix, Alan became a full-time house husband. 

The family has breakfast together each morning and Lupe tries to pick up her son from pre-school at least once a week. She also puts him to bed each night. Alan does the bulk of the cooking (“If it were left to me, we’d be eating tuna on toast at 10pm!”) and then Lupe either spends a few hours with her nose in a crime novel or watching Netflix (when we spoke, her current obsession was the British thriller Bodyguard).

Other outlets are walking the family dog and running, a sport Lupe took up at university. She tries to run three times a week and has completed two half marathons. “I like having a goal and working towards it. I’m currently training for this year’s Queenstown Marathon.”

That doesn’t leave a lot of time for shopping but Lupe admits she loves fashion. “I spend most of my days in unglamorous scrubs but out of work I love Moochi and Zara, stuff that won’t date too quickly. I’m a real hoarder – if I find something I like, I’ll hold onto it forever!”

Quick Q&A

What’s the outfit that makes you feel empowered?
I feel empowered when I wear something that fits me well and is comfortable – especially shoes. Nothing can knock your confidence like tired, achy feet.

Who do you most admire in business? 
Lisa King, the founder of Eat My Lunch. Her courage in leaving the corporate world to start a company with a strong business model and positive social impact is inspirational. Lisa’s “actions, not words” approach to tackling child poverty is truly admirable.

When do you go to bed and when do you get up? 
I’m definitely not a night owl, but sometimes work keeps me up quite late. I’m usually up by 6am with coffee shortly thereafter.

How do you relax away from work? 
I like to spend time with my family, including our German shepherd dog, Nugget, who needs a lot of exercise. Getting out and exploring our local beach is a favourite pastime.

Who’s your female icon or inspiration?
My mother. I would describe her as fiercely independent but compassionate and completely selfless. Mum was the first strong female role model I had.

What is your life motto?
Success depends on your attitude; happiness depends on your gratitude. Count your blessings.

This article was first published in Fashion Quarterly.

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