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Tia Ashby is no stranger to dealing with huge challenges under pressure – in fact, she says her years serving in war zones have been crucial to her success in leading the Covid-19 response for her Northland iwi.

Former Royal New Zealand Navy medic Tia Ashby once spent 12 months serving in the war zone of Afghanistan and for the last two years, has been leading the Covid-19 response team for her Northland iwi, Ngāpuhi.

Although they’re extremely different situations, Tia, 38, describes both as being akin to fighting a battle and working on the frontline.

“When you’re operating in these complex environments, there’s a lot of uncertainty and you need to cooperate as a team,” she says. “The training I had in the military was useful when working on the frontline of Covid-19. You’re put in situations where it’s confronting for people. You have to be adaptable because you don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Tia, whose iwi are Te Rarawa, Te Aupouri, Ngāpuhi, Rarotonga, Te Ati Awa, and Ngāti Mutunga, was 19 when she signed up for the navy in September 2001. It was an unforgettable moment because it was on the very same day of the terrorist attacks in New York City, when the airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers.

Although Tia completed her basic training, she became a Tri-Service medic and her medical skills could be used in not only the navy, but also the army and air force. She spent 12 years in the armed forces and received five operational military medals for her services in overseas deployments, which included serving in South East Asia and Afghanistan. 

“I have always been drawn to a career in health. When I was at primary school, I became a St. John’s cadet. I had a natural inclination to care for people.”

She spent a year in Afghanistan in 2009 and says it was an experience that opened her eyes to the realities of war. Part of her job was to treat allied soldiers caught in battle and tend to their wounds. Some even lost limbs.

“The experience made me more resilient because you’re exposed to significant traumatic events,” Tia says. “My training enabled me to be situationally aware and reflect in action, because if you don’t react quickly then this person could lose their life. It made you switch your focus into something more constructive so you could provide a good outcome for your patient.”

Tia graduated from Massey University, Palmerston North, with an Executive MBA in 2019. IMAGE: SUPPLIED

Tia left the navy soon after her return from Afghanistan in 2010, as she wanted to change her focus and saw that she could use her training and skills to help Māori.

“I had done all this wonderful mahi overseas. I had travelled the world and helped in various countries. However, I saw there was a great need for me here at home,” she says.

“I witnessed a lot of my whānau dying from preventable diseases. A lot of our tamariki needed open heart surgery due to rheumatic fever, which is also preventable. It made me realise that I should be applying what I learned to help my people.”

Tia graduated from Massey University with an Executive Master of Business and also gained a Bachelor of Health Science from the Auckland University of Technology and became a registered nurse. She then received a scholarship to study at Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts.

“I went to Harvard University to develop my thesis, which was about empowering Māori to access primary healthcare using mobile technology. The Harvard course helped me to design and plan cost-effective strategies to deliver innovative health programmes in Te Tai Tokerau and nationally.

Tia at Harvard University. IMAGE: SUPPLIED

“I decided that I needed to work in healthcare in the realm of management, as I recognised being a doctor or a nurse was like a Band-Aid approach to solving the wider issues that we have in Māori health.”

When Covid-19 hit New Zealand in 2020, Tia had all the credentials to lead a team that serviced the needs of Māori in the Northland area in providing tests and access to vaccinations. “It was a challenge from the very beginning. We used a marae operating model, where everyone in the team had a role and they just knew what to do.”

To help navigate her important role, Tia once again relied on the skills that she learned in the military.

“In the navy, I was a senior medic, looking after the health and safety needs of the frigate’s crew on board HMNZS Te Kaha. We had to do small missions and I had to mobilise teams and ensure their safety. I was in charge of the health response if there was a casualty, from the strategy to the execution. I applied that same thinking to our Covid-19 response, where we only had a week to put everything together.”

Tia says the main challenges for Māori in the area were access to vaccinations and distrust of the government.

“Initially, we weren’t getting to the locals. We had to change our model to include drive-through and mobile outreach and started going into the homes. The uptake for our kuia and kaumatua was really high and quick.

“Some families thought there were ulterior motives to the vaccination rollout and others were starting to buy into the American anti-vaccination movement.”

Tia with her whanau in 2021 – husband Raymon, and children Meremere, 22, Cailan, 18, Maia, 8, and Rayne, 6, at a baby shower for her daughter, Kaea Paitai, who was born not long after. IMAGE: SUPPLIED

Those opposed to mandates and vaccines made Tia’s job extremely difficult and created division among whānau. Some of her own family members confronted her about her job and disapproved of what she was doing.

“We focused on addressing health literacy because some of our whānau didn’t know how to read or interpret evidence-based research. After lengthy discussions and showing them all the videos and evidence, they made their own decision and were willing to accept the consequences. Some chose to get vaccinated and some didn’t. There are always going to be some who have their minds made up, and nothing is going to change that.”

Tia and her team’s work resulted in an 82 percent vaccination rate of the 50,488 Māori living in Northland. Tia, who has since become interim CEO of Te Hau Ora O Ngāpuhi, says protecting the vulnerable is what motivated her to carry on with her mahi.

“It was driven by the passion to protect our taonga, our kaumata, the ones who are the most vulnerable to the disease,” she says.

Tia, who is a mother of four, knows first-hand the impact of contracting Covid-19. During our Zoom interview in early April, she was showing symptoms of the virus. The next day, she was diagnosed with Covid-19.

“Now I have a full appreciation of what some of our whānau are going through. I haven’t had asthma since I was a teenager but getting Covid felt like there was something heavy on my chest. It felt like my lungs were in a washing machine.

“I can see how easily something like this can turn into pneumonia. It’s given me a better understanding of the disease trajectory and an appreciation for what our whānau may go through.”

This is Public Interest Journalism made possible by NZ On Air.


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