This biography is based on an interview with Kantha Madhavji Soni in 2016 for the Early Medical Women of New Zealand project
- 1 Early life: growing up in Fiji & moving to New Zealand for further education
- 2 Medical school: admiring the rhododendrons & the becoming the first Indian woman graduate
- 3 After medical school: a visit to India & working in Fiji with underprivileged people
- 4 Returning to New Zealand & developing a love for general practice
- 5 Realising her passion for community health: working as a medical officer in Auckland
- 6 Returning to general practice: community health in disguise
- 7 Reflections: retirement, family, community health, & the future of medicine
- 8 Bibliography
- 9 Share this:
- 10 Related
Early life: growing up in Fiji & moving to New Zealand for further education
Kantha was born in Nadi and grew up in Lautoka, Fiji. Her parents were of Indian heritage and came from an area called Gujarat from the city Porbandar—famously known as the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi. Kantha’s father was a goldsmith by trade, while her mother was a housewife who helped her husband sell his gold and silver jewellery in their own shop. Kantha’s parents lived in Fiji for only a few years before Kantha was born. Eventually they came to call Fiji home.
Kantha completed her primary school years and part of her secondary schooling in Fiji. She spoke very little Fijian herself, as few Fijians lived in Lautoka, although she was raised speaking Gujarati at home, Hindi in the playground, and English in the classroom. At the time, Fiji children would complete a national exam at the end of their primary school education, and only the top thirty percent would be awarded a place at high school. As one of the fortunate ones, Kantha attended Natabua Secondary School a few miles out of Lautoka in an isolated farming area. Her school had accepted girls for only the four years prior, and although she was one of about ten girls in her class of thirty-five, previous years had only two or three girls.
Kantha’s later career as a doctor was inspired from a schoolyard conversation amongst friends. Her high school year was exceptional, as four students with academic potential were accelerated together from the third to the fifth form, and all four later went into a medical career—two boys who studied overseas and a Fijian girl who stayed and became an assistant medical officer, and Kantha who came to New Zealand.
“Nobody in my family or extended family or circle of family friends was a doctor. I don’t know, I just felt I wanted to be a doctor, I think. We were discussing various careers during the high school days, and suddenly I thought doing medicine might be a good thing.”
While Kantha’s family was supportive of her education, she came from a conservative community where education for girls was discouraged. However, Kantha’s academic potential was recognised by both her primary and secondary school teachers, who encouraged her to continue her education.
“I had very supportive teachers through high school and I’m really grateful to them. Especially the principal who was a New Zealander, his name was Tom Robinson. He was very encouraging. Because he didn’t speak any Hindi, he used to send other teachers to my home, to ask my parents to send me to New Zealand for higher education.”
Kantha’s high school teacher was instrumental in her education, using his connections in New Zealand to arrange for her to finish high school at Auckland Girls Grammar School. As a naïve sixteen-year-old, she moved to New Zealand without her family, living first in the YWCA and enduring a period of loneliness, before moving in with an Indian family who she boarded with for the next four years. She found that the Indian community in Auckland was very small, and almost everyone came from India rather than Fiji.
“Everyone seemed to know everyone else. Very small and very cohesive. They intermingled well. All the families knew all the other families.”
Kantha often suffered from homesickness during her time in Auckland. Communicating with her family via letters, she waited more than two weeks for a reply, and she would sit on the steps outside her house watching out for the postman. However, Kantha made some very good friends at high school and her first year in New Zealand was filled with so may exciting new experiences that she had plenty to write home to her family about.
“I made some very good friends, very very good friends, and very helpful friends. One classmate of mine, just before I went into university, that Christmas holidays she taught me the periodic table for chemistry. So yes, they were fantastic girls.”
Kantha had very little science education when she arrived in Auckland, and her high school teachers decided it would be best for her that she passed her University Entrance exam without starting new science subjects. After graduating from high school, Kantha spent two years studying medical intermediate at the University of Auckland where she studied science for the first time. She managed good marks in zoology, botany, and chemistry, although with only a C in physics she was not offered a place in medical school. Undeterred, Kantha decided to begin a Bachelor of Science, where she took some stage two subjects, and the following year she moved to Dunedin to continue her BSc. She applied for medical school again, and this time was accepted.
Medical school: admiring the rhododendrons & the becoming the first Indian woman graduate
Kantha began her medical school studies in 1955. She was one of twelve female students in her medical school class, and for a long time she was the only Indian woman in Dunedin, other than the wife of a house surgeon, with only a handful of male Indian students around the university campus.
Kantha lived in St Margaret’s hostel for three years where she recalls adapting to the diet quite difficult.
“They didn’t understand what vegetarian meant, if you said you don’t eat meat they just took the meat off the plate and gave you the rest, which meant it was usually overboiled cabbage and mashed potatoes, so not enough to survive for a long term.”
“My parents used to send quite a lot of vegetables, tropical Indian vegetables that were not available here. But a lot of Indian ingredients were not available in New Zealand in those days. I think there was only one type of rice, which was Australian short-grain rice, and lentils. Not many other grains that Indians eat, they weren’t available.”
Kantha went home to Fiji every second year throughout her secondary school and university years.
“The first time I went home was by boat, and I was so sick on the way that I have never gone anywhere in a boat since—apart from the Interisland ferries. In fact, I was so sick that I was praying that the boat would go down and put me out of misery, I was really seasick.”
Travelling from Dunedin back to Fiji became an experience that instead involved multiple trains and flights, with lengthy stopovers along the way—all preferable to a boat journey across open water.
“You came by train Dunedin to Lyttleton, it took the whole day, then you caught an Interisland ferry there, from Lyttleton, it took all night. You arrived in Wellington, and somehow you had to fill in from seven am to seven pm in Wellington, and then caught a train at seven pm up to Auckland and arrive here at seven am, or something like that. And then in Wellington, to fill in time, we’d go to a film, buy one ticket and just stay—just walk into a theatre at any time during the film showing and just stay there till we were hungry enough to go out, have a meal and come back. And spend the rest of the afternoon there.”
Kantha was a quiet and shy student. She socialised mostly with her friends from the hostel, including a few good friends from Auckland Grammar School who was studying dentistry. Within her medical school class, she was particularly good friends with Elizabeth Berry and Alison Knox, as well as Lucy Chung who qualified a few years later. On Saturday nights the students would often attend the hops—a social event with dancing. Kantha also belonged to an international club, tried her hand at hockey and fencing for a while, and went on a few organised camping trips around the South Island. Once a year she would attend the St Margaret’s ball with her group of friends, each accompanied with a partner. Drinking and smoking was not part of her lifestyle at that point.
Living in the small student city of Dunedin, students would walk everywhere, and very few owned a car.
“As soon as spring started, after Sunday lunch, we used to go into the gardens and admire rhododendrons. Beautiful time of the year, in Dunedin.”
After leaving St Margaret’s hostel later in her studies, Kantha lived in a cottage behind the hostel with seven other women studying a variety of professions. Here Kantha had to learn to cook for herself for the first time. She survived with financial support from her parents who sent money from Fiji, and she would also work during the long summer holidays. During her time in Auckland, she worked as a wardsmaid in Middlemore hospital, and later during medical school she would visit a friend in New Plymouth for the summer where she worked in rest homes and in New Plymouth hospital.
The first five terms of medical school were pre-clinical years, which involved a large amount of learning, and the content was largely dominated by anatomy. Kantha worked in a group of four students, working two-a-side, on the same body for the entire time—studying the trunk and limbs in the second year, and then the head and neck in the third year. Kantha found that she preferred physiology to anatomy, as she could understand how the body worked.
“A bit of a shock, the first day. I remember that very well. Walking into the anatomy room and being hit with this formalin smell and then seeing, I think there were twenty-four bodies lying on the slabs in a huge room.”
“Men and women got on very well. Especially as you mix in the laboratories, you mixed in physiology labs and anatomy.”
In the lead up to exams, Kantha and another medical student she lived with would quiz each other. Unfortunately, students would often fail their final year exams, and would have to return in February to re-sit a special exam, before being allowed to continue. Kantha recalls re-sitting one exam in biochemistry after her first year in medical school.
Clinical studies began in fourth year, which Kantha enjoyed because she could apply what she’d learnt from previous years to a real person. In her sixth year, Kantha decided to go to Christchurch for her clinical studies, with her friend Elizabeth Berry, to the Princess Margaret Hospital where they were the first women to live in the house surgeon’s quarters.
“I remember that because we were allowed to choose the curtains.”
The students spent their time in lectures and tutorials within the hospital, and then would be assigned to various runs where they were given contact with patients.
“One thing I remember in particular is that we had a Dr Bevan who was a specialist, a physician but his main interest was diabetes. But he was so interested in teaching, that if a patient came in in the middle of the night he would be there, and he would give you a full tutorial in the middle of the night. And when he was on duty, he used to sleep on an x-ray table, so that he would be available. He was so enthusiastic, a really enthusiastic teacher.”
Kantha returned to Dunedin for her final exams. She graduated shortly after, in 1960—as both New Zealand’s first Indian woman, and Fiji’s first Indian woman medical school graduate. While none of her family could attend, her success was recognised back home in the Fijian newspaper. This recognition not only shaped her own career but allowed other young women to follow her example.
“Yes, well it was a privilege.”
“It was a big moment, not only for my immediate family but for my school and obviously for Fiji as well because it came in the newspapers. There was another newspaper that had the events of 1960, and all the things that had happened in Fiji or for Fiji or about Fiji. And one of the things was me graduating that year.”
“Even now, fifty years later or whatever it is—last year I went to Australia, and I met a family from my own conservative community, and their two daughters are doctors. And one of them is training to be a surgeon—she’s in Brisbane. And the parents introduced me to the daughters as though I was the inspiration for the family to educate their daughters. It felt good, yes. So, if I’ve done that, that is an achievement.”
After medical school: a visit to India & working in Fiji with underprivileged people
After graduating from medical school, Kantha spent one year working as a house surgeon at Kew Hospital in Invercargill to obtain her medical registration. Living in New Zealand on a student visa, she was expected to return to Fiji once her education was complete, and Kantha was keen to return to her family.
Rather than settling immediately into Fijian life, Kantha spent the first couple of months travelling around India with her mother and meeting new family members. After a twelve-hour layover in Sydney and a long flight to Bombay, Kantha and her mother were collected by her uncle and taken to Gujarat, for Kantha’s first experience of India.
“I actually felt quite dizzy at the railway station, because of the constant movement of people. It took me a while to realise why I was feeling as though I’d just come off a boat, it was the constant movement of thousands of people. You know, going from Invercargill to Bombay is a bit of a change.”
Kantha’s mother had a wonderful time reuniting with family, particularly her sister, who she hadn’t seen in more than thirty years. Together with Kantha’s uncle and his twelve-year-old son, the family toured around Delhi and Jaipur and all the way to Kashmir, staying on a houseboat, before travelling on to Simla.
After returning to Fiji, Kantha set off on a career trajectory that dictated the rest of her life. Dr George Hamming had read of her successes at medical school, and invited Kantha to work alongside him in his Bayly clinic for underprivileged people. Dr Hemming was an Australian man who had originally trained as a schoolteacher, then as a theologian, and finally as a doctor. During the second world war, rather than fighting on the front line he was sent to work in Fiji’s Suva War Memorial Hospital built by the Americans, where he stayed long after the war was over. Kantha worked alongside Dr Hemming in his clinic for eighteen months, while her medical knowledge continued to grow.
“I was learning on the job. Well, it’s only after you qualified that you start learning. But the tropical medicine is different from what I had to practice in Invercargill, so I learnt a lot from Dr Hemming.”
Returning to New Zealand & developing a love for general practice
Kantha’s time working in Fiji was relatively short-lived, and she returned to New Zealand in 1964 to marry. The couple moved to Dobson—a mining town on the west coast of New Zealand. Kantha worked in a salaried role as a general practitioner provided with a furnished house and clinic, financed by the Health Department. Between them, Kantha and her husband looked after a very large area of New Zealand, travelling by car to other smaller clinics outside of Dobson as well as to Grey hospital, where Kantha worked in the casualty department and her husband in anaesthetics.
“My life there was very interesting. I had never been to a mine or had seen miners, so the first thing I wanted to do was go down the mine, in case there was an emergency and I had to go down a mine, and I didn’t want to panic.”
“I talked to the mines manager, and at first he tried to discourage me, but eventually, he agreed to take me down. So a group of us, including his wife who had never been down a mine, we went down Dobson mine. And that was an experience. And I didn’t panic, so I knew that if I ever had to go down the mine, to help an accident case, I would manage.”
Fortunately, Kantha did not have to go down to the mines again, although she did have to attend to several emergencies at the mine’s entrance, and she treated injuries from horrific mining or forestry accidents. On one occasion she was brought in to give the doctor from the neighbouring Strongman mine a holiday, as the miners were striking under their policy of ‘no doctor, no mining’.
Weekends were spent going gold panning or looking for greenstone, the usual past-time in the region.
“Up Arahua valley, for greenstone, and there were a lot of rivers that had been worked over by early miners, but you could still get some, what they called, ‘colour’. Which was tiny flakes of gold, so we used to go panning for gold in the little streams.”
After about two years living and working in Dobson, they moved to Palmerston North, where they bought an apartment and enjoyed the social interaction with academics from nearby Massey University. Kantha worked for one years as a medical registrar and then the second year as a radiology registrar, before deciding that she would like to remain in general practice. Kantha and her husband then moved to Levin where Kantha worked as a locum for a group practice.
“It was much much smaller; it was very social. I had some wonderful neighbours, and I still keep in touch with the children who are middle-aged now.”
Kantha now had experience working both in a hospital setting, and in general practice, and she found the latter much more satisfying. She enjoyed using her counselling skills and having to make quick clinical judgements.
“In general practice you’ve got less time to make up your mind, you’ve got to be much more alert to diagnosis, you can’t keep coming back. In a hospital, you can go away, check-up and get more information about a condition, come back, examine the patient again, discuss it with your colleagues, because there are a lot of colleagues around. While in general practice you are sitting in a room with the patient, an anxious patient usually, and you depend on your clinical acumen much more than the other things, like x-rays and blood tests and so on.”
“You have to make sure you’re not making a mistake, for example, you’re not sending an angina patient home with an antiacid, and things like that. So you have to be much more alert. And it’s much more satisfying, because in hospitals the patient is lying on a bed and you’re treating a patient, and you are standing up so the relationship is quite different from a person sitting next to you, fully dressed, and you are treating the whole of the person. It’s much more interesting. You get to know their social life, their personal lives and their relationships, their anxieties and their medical problems.”
After two years in Levin, Kantha once again moved on, this time to Lower Hutt where Kantha joined another practitioner in a two-doctor practice and became a full time GP. When the other doctor suffered a heart attack and was on leave for three months, Kantha took over his division of the practice, gradually building up her own alongside, and when he returned, they diverged into two manageable practices.
Kantha experienced some mixed reactions to her role as a GP. Her practice was located between a working-class and several upmarket areas, with a nearby regions employing lots of overseas scientists, and she treated a diverse range of people. Because of her name, sometimes people would not know if they would be seeing a male or a female doctor when they booked an appointment.
“In those days people were not used to women doctors quite as much, so there were people who were surprised. One new family came into the area, and the wife and the children came to me, and the next day the husband was supposed to come. So obviously the wife hadn’t told him about me, so when he opened the door to come into the surgery, he took one look and he said, “Oh”. And then he just came and sat down and we discussed his problems, and I said “Look, there is a male doctor, who’s my partner, if you want to change it’s still the same practice so don’t worry.” And he said, “No, no.” And he became a regular patient of mine, the whole family stayed with me.”
Kantha found that she developed a natural rapport with ex-psychiatric hospital patients, and the clinicians at Porirua Hospital started referring their discharged patients to her for follow-up care. With no specific training in psychiatry, Kantha realised that she needed to upskill, and she arranged to sit-in with the chief psychiatrist at Wellington Hospital once a week for a year.
“It is absolutely essential that you keep doing that. Because as you come across new problems you’ve got to update yourself, because you cannot learn everything at the medical school.”
“For me, with those patients coming in larger numbers, it was essential that I knew what I was expected to do for them. The only thing I remember, I think the only skill that I had, that probably recommended me to them was that I was a good listener. I don’t know whether it helped them or not.”
Realising her passion for community health: working as a medical officer in Auckland
Kantha stayed in Lower Hutt for eleven years, and towards the end of this time she began experiencing burn out. Her practice had grown quite large and Kantha found she was giving quite a lot of herself to her work, trying to help her patients beyond just their medical problems. In the early 1980s, Kantha leased out her practice and moved to Auckland to give herself a break from general practice, where she joined the Auckland Department of Health as a medical officer. Although only intending to stay for one year, Kantha enjoyed the role so much that she later sold her Lower Hutt practice and remained in Auckland.
“Public health nurses visited schools and preschool centres, and homes where there were children, under-five children, who are not being covered by Plunket nurses. And when it came to a medical problem, they would take a medical officer like myself along with them, and so we would try to sort out their medical problem. Whether they needed a prescription or an assessment of delayed development, milk allergies, things like that.”
Kantha’s role was diverse, working across inner city suburbs including Point Chevalier, Herne Bay, and Ponsonby, as well as the less accessible Waiheke, Motutapu, and Great Barrier Islands, which she would visit monthly or even yearly via seaplane from Mechanics Bay. Kantha saw children living in challenging circumstances whose families did not want the much-needed help, and Kantha relied on her public health nurses to build trust with the families. She found that educating parents about disease and the importance of vaccines was a large part of her job.
“In those days Grey Lynn was very much a Pacific Island area, and Karangahape Road was a flourishing red-light area, so I saw the other side of life there. We were mainly working with the children; they were children of lower socioeconomic areas or people. Some had chronic illnesses that were not being sorted out because their parents were not interested, or it was a very large extended family, and nobody actually owned the problem. A much-loved child, but you know, nobody actually took the responsibility. Solo parents working long hours, not having time to go to the doctor. Not having enough money to go to the doctor. Abused children. Developmental delays. Hearing, vision problems in pre-schools.”
“We tried to educate parents of children on hepatitis B injections, the diseases, the meningitis diseases, things like that. We tried to educate the parents of the school children so that they become aware of these diseases and immunise their children against it. So educating parents was part of the job.”
Kantha recognised where community healthcare services were lacking and did everything that she could to fill in the gaps. In about 1985, after being called in one day to help with a council-run clinic for street children, Kantha decided to start a monthly clinic located near the Auckland University of Technology, to provide regular medical checks and health education. The children attending the clinic were aged about 14 to 18 years old, were often school dropouts or runaways who lived under a bridge or in similar dire circumstances, and Kantha had to work hard to gain their trust.
“A lot of them had chronic long-term problems, like runny ears and asthma that was neglected, things like that. And they were actually living on the streets, so we organised specialist appointments.”
“The younger ones we tried to send to health camp because there they also carry on with those problems, they teach them how to keep clean, brush their teeth, they provide them with clothes and so on. And six weeks there makes an amazing difference.”
“If these sort of people come back to you a second time you have won. If you don’t see them again you haven’t done a good job.”
Outside of her work with the Department of Health, Kantha spent some time working with more affluent children in the community. When she first arrived in Auckland, Kantha returned to Auckland Girls Grammar school for a social visit, where she introduced herself to the principal, casually offering her assistance to the school. The principal immediately took Kantha up on her offer, introducing her to the school nurse and assigning her on the roster for the school clinics. Although this was voluntary work outside of her employment, Kantha soon began visiting two or three other nearby schools as a medical officer.
“The young girls sometimes have worries about some medical problem, whether it existed or not, that they did not want to discuss with their GP, because the GP’s, they thought, would discuss it with their parents. So they needed someone to talk to, to sort their problems out. And those were the main patients coming to me.”
Kantha noticed the change in demographics from when she was a student at Auckland Girls’ Grammar. As a woman with Fijian and Indian heritage, Kantha found it useful to be able to relate to young women from diverse backgrounds.
“When I first came, Auckland was very, very monocultural. Auckland Girls Grammar was very monocultural. When I went back to Auckland Grammar, it looked as if half the school was non-white. And they had Maori cultural groups, Polynesian cultural groups, Indian cultural groups, all sorts of activities that were not seen or probably heard of when I first went to Auckland Girls Grammar. Overall Auckland had changed a lot.”
“Auckland Girls Grammar started getting overseas students, and they had different worries. They had a lack of knowledge of the New Zealand medical system, and social problems. So I used to hold little meetings with the overseas students. And it was more important that they related with me. And they could express their anxieties and their worries and questions. They were Pacific Island students, quite a lot of European students, new migrants, Italians and Greeks, Indians. Muslim girls who had to live two lives—one at school and another at home.”
Over time, Kantha became increasingly well-known for her work in community health. From 1986 to 1988 she was the chairperson of the Auckland Youth Resource Centre advisory committee. She was also involved in the Pacific Island Health and Welfare committee, where she acted as a facilitator between the Pacific peoples and the Department of Health. The committee did some excellent work organising events to educate people about health, particularly diabetes and high blood pressure that are common amongst Pacific Island people.
“There were the prominent Pacific Island representatives, who were interested in their health and welfare in that committee. And then I realised that Fiji was part of the Pacific, and their problems were common in the islands that were brought with them, to New Zealand. That’s when I identified myself more as belonging to, or coming from, Pacific Islands.”
Returning to general practice: community health in disguise
“I was bored with not really getting my teeth into real medicine, which to me was general practice.”
Kantha worked as a medical officer for about six years. In 1988, she joined a GP practice in Glenfield, only to be pulled back into community health only a few years later. In 1991, Waitemata Health asked her to cover for a medical officer going on maternity leave, and Kantha took up the role, working part time across community health and private general practice. This gave her the freedom to practice both parts of medicine that she enjoyed, while witnessing changes in Auckland’s culture across different groups of society.
“I realised how multicultural Auckland was becoming, and also by the time I finished in central Auckland, Ponsonby and Grey Lynn was getting less and less Polynesian. And areas, the new areas in west Auckland, there were areas where the whole area would be lower socioeconomic zone. So yes I realised that there are pockets, even on the North Shore.”
Back working in community health, Kantha once again took the initiative to improve services for the community. As part of her work with Waitemata Health, she ran a monthly cervical screening clinic for Maori women and when women presented for screening she would take the opportunity to follow up with other health concerns. Together with the Maori Women’s Welfare League, Kantha arranged funding to start a general practice based on the Awataha Marae in Northcote, with the aim of encouraging Maori people into the healthcare system. Kantha worked hard for two years to establish the clinic.
“It was exciting starting a brand-new practice, ordering stuff and furnishing it and equipping it. Employing a practice nurse, employing a receptionist, yes it was really exciting.”
“And now it is flourishing with several doctors who are working rosters and part-time and locums, and I think there’s a dental clinic and there’s social work going on. So it’s really developed, it’s flourished.”
Kantha left the practice after a year in operation, resigning to allow a Maori doctor to take over the practice, which has continued to grow and develop. At this time, Kantha decided to leave general practice and return full time to community health, which she continued with until she retired in 2001.
In 2011, Kantha was awarded a New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the community and to medicine.
“It was such an honour and a privilege really, but on the other hand I just felt shy about it. I just felt I didn’t deserve it. I wasn’t doing anything extraordinary. I was really surprised when the first letter came.”
Reflections: retirement, family, community health, & the future of medicine
Kantha’s interests in community health have continued into her retirement. She is a member of Soroptimist International and the University of the Third Age, which keeps her brain active in her retirement.
“At first I felt guilty, sitting around having nothing to do and being able to go out to lunches and morning teas, I just felt guilty. But it took a couple of years before I stopped feeling completely guilty, and now I wouldn’t go back to anything.”
Over the years, Kantha maintained a successful career in public health all while raising her daughter.
“I used to take her to the surgery in Lower Hutt, and the nurse or the receptionist would keep an eye on her in the office, till I got a nanny. But I had a lot of help from my neighbours, in those days.”
Kantha also lived with the support of her mother during the late 1970s. After her father died, Kantha convinced her mother to visit her in New Zealand, first for only six months at a time, until she eventually settled in enough to call New Zealand home.
“She lived all those years with me. It was a great help because when you’d got home, she had a beautiful meal on the table. And when Sushma got home there was someone home.”
Kantha’s obvious passion for community health is reflected by her grief for the changes to New Zealand’s healthcare system that make this work more difficult.
“Community health has, in my way of thinking, has been on a downward slope for some time. There are no such people as medical officers anymore. And since the community health went from separate Department of Health to Health Boards, I think the emphasis has become more centred on hospital treatment, expensive machinery, rather than people who go out and do the grassroots work. That’s my opinion.”
Kantha reflects how leaving general practice and moving into community health gave her a new appreciation for health care—for clinicians working with children and adults who may not appreciate their efforts.
“I enjoyed working with a wider group of colleagues. For the first time, I realised how many people are involved with health and wellbeing. Because sitting in your general practice clinic, you don’t realise how many others are out there doing their bit. And also you come across people who are not motivated, that was the biggest challenge. Because in general practice, you’re sitting there and the patient comes to you with a problem, fully motivated to get better.”
“But in community health, you are actually going out there to people who are not seeking help, and they don’t know they need help, and they don’t want your help. And you’re actually almost forcing your help down their throat, for their children’s sake. They make appointments, they don’t turn up, you go to their home, having made an appointment and they’re not home. At first, I used to get frustrated and I used to say, “don’t bother”. But the nurses said, “Yeah, but we’re doing it for the children.” So I realised that yes, we had to persevere.”
“I must give credit to the public health nurses because they were the ones who raised their voices and demanded things for the underprivileged. In community health, they were the leaders. Mind you, they had larger numbers. Because one of us would be working with ten of them.”
Underlying Kantha’s successful career is clearly her empathetic nature and her ability to relate to her patients. Her earliest days growing up with a multicultural identity, followed by her frequent moves around New Zealand, taught her how to empathise with people from many different cultural or economic backgrounds.
“Basically, medicine is medicine. Illness is illness, and people are people. You only have to adjust to their experiences. If they’ve lived in a rural area, their experiences and their attitudes are slightly different from an urban person. In Fiji, their experiences and their attitudes were slightly different. Their abilities were slightly different. So to treat the overall person, there are great differences. But the actual disease is the same.”
“I can relate to anybody. I think any race, any colour, any age, and any background. Because yes, having had this wide experience, I’ve been so fortunate really, to have had this very, very wide experience. Especially working in places like the west coast of South Island, Great Barrier Island, I mean you couldn’t think of anywhere more different than say, Auckland city.”
Kantha has this advice for young people thinking about a career in medicine:
“My career wasn’t pre-thought out and directed, it just happened. But I wouldn’t go back, I don’t regret any of it because it’s all been very interesting, and it’s been so varied. If I had specialised, I would have been in one area, one field only. But with all these accidental steps, I’ve seen so much of the other areas that go on, still focused on that wellbeing of a person. So I wouldn’t change anything.”
“I would say, before you decide to specialise, because specialising seems to be the first choice for a medical student, look at other areas before you specialise. And I would advise anyone who’s interested in a person as a whole, and people, to go into general practice. That is, I think, the most satisfying area.”