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Physiotherapy part of the recovery for Samoa's measles patients

Photo: Physiotherapy part of the recovery for Samoa's measles patients
How were your holidays? Ask Wintec physiotherapy tutor Oka Sanerivi this question and he’ll tell you he went to Samoa, to help fight the measles epidemic.

Oka worked in the Intensive Care Unit at Apia's main hospital Tupua Tamasese Meaole, dealing with critically ill patients with measles and associated complications.

The Gisborne-based physiotherapist, who also teaches at Wintec, says he experienced heartbreak and elation during his week there.

“I was really glad to be doing something positive to help my people,” he said, but he will never forget the tough times.

“The parents of a three-month-old baby I was treating were told their child was unlikely to pull through, and on my last day there, they were looking at withdrawing the treatment on a 38-year- old man because he went into multi-organ failure.”
A highlight says Oka was assisting a woman, who had been ventilated and sedated for five days in ICU, to sit up on the edge of the bed. He then introduced her in Samoan, to the medical team who had been looking after her during her period under sedation.

“Between breaths, she was able to thank the staff personally. It was a really touching moment.”

On New Year’s Day, he relieved the physiotherapy team so they could celebrate with their families.

This was their first day off in six weeks.

He said it helped that he was able to communicate in Samoan when dealing with patients and their families. Oka’s father is Samoan and he grew up with the language.

“It was good for me to be there and to be able to speak the language — you could see the differences in communication between those speaking English and Samoan, which has certain subtleties.”

“I now have a strong relationship with the physiotherapy service in Samoa, who took me in as their own and who desperately requested for more long-term support from New Zealand physiotherapists.”

“In Samoa, I got to share the vision and philosophy behind Wintec’s Physiotherapy School, particularly its motivation to increase the number of Māori and Pacific physiotherapists entering the workforce. I see Wintec as playing a pivotal role in building the capacity of physiotherapists in Aotearoa and the wider Pacific. It's an exciting prospect.”

In Samoa he also established relationships with the Samoan Ministry of Health, the New Zealand High Commission in Samoa and international medical teams from New Zealand, Australia, Norway and the United Kingdom. He says there was a strong sense of camaraderie between the staff who provided assistance.

Financial support came from Waikato-based Pasifika support organisation, K'aute Pasifika and the Aere Tai Midland and Pacific Collective who funded travel for the New Zealand-based Samoan physiotherapists volunteering in Samoa.

K'Aute Pasifika was established by Wintec Honorary Fellow, Leaupepe Peta Karalus who is based in Samoa and it is now led by her daughter, Rachel Karalus.

An article in the Gisborne Herald before Christmas about his planned trip prompted offers of financial help from individuals, members of the Gisborne Samoan community and the Life Education Trust.

“I was really humbled by the support.”

The Samoa measles outbreak began in September 2019. The epidemic has now affected 5,697 people, around two percent of Samoa’s population of 200,874, and 87 people lost their lives.

Oka says the measles epidemic is now slowing down.

“When I left, there were about four admissions a day and many were getting well in hospital and being discharged home.”

He says that since the lifting of the state of emergency on 29 December, Samoa had moved into a recovery phase and was now looking at how to support people attending outpatient clinics and educating people about how to get well following the measles outbreak.

“There will continue to be a need for ongoing help from New Zealand Samoan medical professionals in Samoa as the nation moves into this recovery phase.”

In response to a call from Samoan Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, for Samoan medical professionals living in Australia and New Zealand to help with the epidemic, Oka set up the New Zealand Samoan Physiotherapists Network in 2019.

Oka is coordinating further volunteer support through this network. Two physiotherapists will join the team in Samoa shortly and he hopes to return there himself later this year.

Oka will be back at Wintec this year to teach Physiotherapy and coordinate clinical placements. He also works with children at Gisborne Hospital as a neurodevelopmental therapist in the Child Development Service.

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