A baby, a medical degree, and now a seat on the Board 

12 February 2021

The apprentice has become the master with the appointment of Dr Kiriana Bird (Ngāti Tukorehe, Ngāti Porou) to the College Board.

Kiri was the College’s first Board Apprentice in 2014 and now sits at the table as the representative for Te Akoranga a Māui (the College’s Māori representative group).

“The inequities in health care provision we see in Aotearoa are a huge challenge for us as a Board, and I am pleased this issue is one of the College’s core strategic objectives going forward,” says Kiri. “To have someone with a deep understanding of the issues Māori face and why these inequities exist is an essential part of any governance organisation when talking about health care, and I am happy to share my knowledge and perspective.”

And if there is anyone who knows about overcoming challenges, it is Kiriana Bird. Growing up, she didn’t see herself as someone who could achieve in the academic world by going to university. No-one in her family had done so and how was she to be different?

But a seed planted by year 10 science teacher at St Joseph’s Māori Girls’ College in Napier changed her mind.

“I was very, very lucky to attend St. Joseph’s,” she says. “They pushed me academically and, more importantly, instilled a real sense of self-belief and confidence in who I was as a Māori wāhine.

“It is absolutely essential we have Māori coming through our med schools because we need a workforce that reflects our community and the diversity within it.”

“My mother had attended the same school, and she wanted me to experience that positive environment for a young Māori girl, a first step on the road to success.”

That seed grew, and after achieving good marks in her School Certificate (surprising herself!), she decided to apply to Otago Medical School, gaining a place straight out of year 13.

“My teachers and the principal were so supportive of me, it gave me the belief I could do it, I could become a doctor,” she remembers. “And my family, my parents, they were so proud. I was on my way.”

But then a teenage pregnancy threatened to derail her future. Aged 17, Kiri and her boyfriend Lee discovered they were to become parents, preventing her from attending medical school and potentially changing her life.

“I was in shock,” she says. “I just felt like I’d blown it, my dreams of being a doctor, my whole future. Telling my parents that I wasn’t going to med school after all was awful – they tried to hide it but I could see their disappointment and worry.”

The couple decided to move to Wellington so Lee could continue with his accounting degree as he had planned, and, after the birth of Tyler Grace in October 1996, Kiri too began studying at Victoria University.

“It wasn’t easy, not at all,” she says. “We leaned heavily on Lee’s sisters and brother who helped immensely, and the support of the kohanga (preschool nursery) at Victoria meant I was able to continue breastfeeding between lectures.

“The marae there was also instrumental in enabling us both to study, providing us with meals and a safe place to be. 

“But however hard it was, having Tyler really made me want to make the most of the opportunities available to me, to work for a better future for us all.”

Three years later, the couple graduated - a Bachelor of Science for Kiri and a degree in Commerce and Accounting for Lee, and they moved to Auckland to start Lee’s new job.

“I remember the salary – it was $32,000 a year and we thought we were rich,” Kiri laughs. “It meant that I could give med school another go so I successfully applied to Auckland Med School.”

But the young family still needed whānau support – so Lee’s mother sold her home and moved to Auckland to help.

“There is no way in the world that I could have had the career I’ve got without our families backing us every step of the way,” says Kiri. “And not just with love and encouragement – with real, practical support that enabled us to study and be parents to Tyler. I will be forever grateful to them.”

“The inequities in health care provision we see in Aotearoa are a huge challenge for us as a Board, and I am pleased this issue is one of the College’s core strategic objectives going forward.”

She completed her medical degree and started working at Te Taiwhenua o Heretaunga in Hastings, under the wing of the famous Prof. David Tipene-Leach, to complete her GP training. She is now a GP and the Medical Director at the family-focused organisation.

She became a GP, she says, so she could give back to her extended whānau because she understood the challenges they face every day. Her interest in governance also grew and she found herself becoming a director on the Health Hawke’s Bay PHO Board, advocating for Māori whenever she could.

That determination to succeed is still evident, but now Kiri uses it for the benefit of those who struggle to have their voices heard. She is passionate about the need to ensure young Māori have the support they need to become the doctors of the future.

“It is absolutely essential we have Māori coming through our med schools because we need a workforce that reflects our community and the diversity within it,” she says. “However, there is a perception that Māori candidates are given an ‘easy’ track into earning their medical degrees.

“Let me tell you – there is nothing easy about becoming a doctor when you are Māori. You are fighting for equity from the very start of your educational life and it doesn’t get easier. You are not only dealing with social inequities, but often also with a lack of expectation or support from those around you.

“I am so very much one of the fortunate ones. A young Māori girl who was given the confidence and belief in herself to achieve and the support to do it.”

And now Kiri’s daughter, 13-year-old daughter Ariana Grace, has just begun her time at St. Joseph’s. Maybe she will follow in her mothers’ footsteps and become a voice for those who need it.