Starship clinicians give up holidays to save lives in Pacific

A group of Starship doctors and nurses jetted off to Fiji in February – but instead of sunbathing, they were performing life-saving surgeries.  

Undertaking a whopping 13 operations in five days, they gave up their holidays for children in the Pacific who wouldn’t otherwise have access to Starship. 

One 11-year-old girl they met was Semaema. She was born with a condition called Tetralogy of Fallot, which limits blood flow through the heart and would cause her to turn blue.  

This lack of oxygen limited her mobility and she was unable to walk. So her dad would carry her to school each day. 

However, this can be cured with one simple operation. And thanks to the Starship team, she is more than just up on her feet! 

“Immediately after the corrective surgery, Semaema changed from being blue to being pink and within two days she realised she could walk without having blue spells,” says Dr Kirsten Finucane, Starship Surgical Director of Paediatric and Congenital Cardiology Services. 

“By the third day Semaema was running up and down the corridor, with her friend, aged 10, who had similar surgery, trying to keep up with her.” 

The team also mended holes in little hearts and performed operations on children with Rheumatic Fever, a condition often attributed to poor living conditions.    

Pacific group


What drives these clinicians to give up their holidays? Providing access to life-saving surgery for children who might not otherwise be able to have them.  

“These simple one-off surgeries are if not life-saving, then absolutely life-changing. A family’s whole life can revolve around keeping their child alive. These surgeries make a huge amount of difference to a child’s life in a short amount of time, and to be able to do that is incredible,” says Dr Finucane 

Dr Finucane says her motives aren’t entirely altruistic, she also gained a lot from her time in Fiji.  

“There’s a greater sense of community. It’s not a nuclear family set-up and often friends, relatives or community members help with caring for the child. There was an instance where I had to have a difficult conversation about how sick a child was, and it wasn’t about that one child, but about improving the lives of children and the community as a whole. 

“I learnt a lot and came back to New Zealand with a balanced sense of what is important,” says Dr Finucane. 

The Starship team have been increasing access to healthcare in the Pacific since 2015 and this was their first trip since Covid lockdowns, making it extra special. 

Starship clinicians increase access to healthcare in the Pacific

These incredible photos were taken by one of the nurses on the trip, Jodie Watt. Check out more of her work on her Facebook page Jodie Maree Photography

Dr Kirsten Finucane wins distinguished alumni award 

Did you know a baby’s heart is approximately the size of a walnut? 

Dr Kirsten Finucane has worked at Starship Children’s hospital for over 25 years. She leads the team who care for and operate on young children and babies born with a variety of heart defects and genetic heart conditions. 

Dr Finucane recently received a Distinguished Alumni Award from Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland at the Taumata awards ceremony.  


Named to reflect the summit or peak inherent in the University’s Māori name, the Taumata awards recognise University Alumni who have had a world-changing impact. 

Jack Tame interviewed Dr Finucane about her incredible career caring for children with congenital heart conditions both in New Zealand and the Pacific, while also juggling life as a mum to three boys. Even sharing the moment, when pregnant with her third son, she went into labour during surgery! 

This follows on from the Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit she received in 2020 for services to health and paediatric heart surgery.