At 76 years old, surgeon George Ngaei knows a thing of two about taking on challenges.
As a 12-year-old from Rarotonga, he arrived scared and alone at Napier Boys’ High School in New Zealand. For the first month, he cried every night – and then he told himself to take on the challenge.
When a head teacher dismissed his determination to go to medical school, insisting he was suited only to agriculture, Ngaei agains stuck out his jaw and persevered.
In 1984, Ngaei commissioned an inquiry into the health system in the Cook Islands, reimbursing health staff for after-hours work and recognising the need for well-trained doctors and nurses.
When in later years, he negotiated in-principle New Zealand aid support for a $2.4 to $4.5 million high dependency and intensive care unit at Rarotonga Hospital, he ran into difficulties. He was frustrated but undeterred by the failure of the Minister of Health, back then, to accept the offer. He kept fighting, and he’s fighting still.
This Queen’s Birthday Weekend, the respected medical leader was named a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit – one of that country’s top honours.
Officially, it was for services to health and the Pacific community. He laughs. “I think they gave it to me for being stubborn.”
So when he advised Cook Islands and New Zealand Cabinet minister that borders between the two countries can be opened in early July, then his words carried some weight.
“New Zealand should start with the Cook Islands first and let Australia sort its problems out before sharing the bubble with Australia,” he said yesterday.
Cook Islands is Covid-free, and New Zealand has just one active case – an Auckland woman in her 50s. But Australia still has 487 active cases – 25 new cases this month, and one death.
“I think Australia prime minister Scott Morrison is very desperate to be the first to share a bubble with another country, and that means New Zealand, because clearly Asia is out, and America’s out,” he said.
“Sharing a bubble with the Cooks is not going to impact too much on tourism centres in New Zealand, but for those people who want to get out of New Zealand – probably several thousand a week – the Cooks can absorb that.”
Based in Invercargill, George Ngaei and his wife Bobi regularly return to Rarotonga, at their own expense, to provide healthcare not otherwise available in the Cook Islands
And he’s been consistently outspoken, sometimes a thorn in governments’ sides – just this year urging them to move quickly to save young lives on the roads by addressing speed and helmets.
It was important to advocate publicly when the Cook Island government were not paying enough attention to the health needs of the population, Ngaei said, and he welcomed the new road safety law changes.
Ngaei’s parents were from Manihiki and Mitiaro. He was born under a mango tree, by the theological college. “The college is still there,” he mused, “but they’ve cut down the mango tree. They never asked me!”