By Ashleigh McCaull, RNZ
Third-year Otago University medical student Leigh Albert is no stranger when it comes to facing a challenge.
From being told she would never make it as a doctor, to losing her partner in a tragic drowning and becoming a single parent to three children, Albert has been through it all.
She is one of only three undergraduates to be awarded with the Ngārimu VC and Māori Battalion Scholarship, which she says she is humbled to receive.
“To be presented with the most prestigious scholarship, I believe in New Zealand in that whare, was just monumental, and it meant so much to me.
“But not only me but also my whānau and friends and hapū.”
The scholarship was presented at Te Whare Rūnanga at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds where the battalion departed from.
This venue was incredibly significant for Albert because her grandfather, a Commander Sergeant Major for Charlie Company in the 28th Māori Battalion, was one of the carvers of the whare.
Her grandmother was also one of the weavers of the tukutuku panels in the whare.
The 37-year-old mother-of-three has served 18 years in the NZ Defence Force; serving as Platoon Sergeant, training soldiers in the summer.
She said one of her most memorable missions with the Defence Force included being deployed in the Soloman Islands in 2014 to locate communities who were cut off to main access.
“We found a school that was hidden in amongst the trees in the middle of a swamp. And when we traversed that, we found that there was almost 250 students that were cut off by the swamp, which was croc-infested, so they couldn’t cross.”
Although she was used to a challenge, she said nothing could prepare her for the heartache she was about to face during her daughter Mānea’s 11th birthday in 2018.
In a tragic accident, she lost her partner Waironga after he drowned trying to save her twin sons who were caught in a rip at Cable Bay, northeast of Nelson.
“The 2nd of January, my daughter actually shares that with my uncle Tukaki who had passed around about the same time my dad had about a month earlier … it’s still kind of a tough situation to try and reason your way through.
“But we were lucky enough to come away with my kids still alive. And we would be dealing with the death of my partner, which was horrendous.”
Albert put her career in the New Zealand Defence Force on hold while she and her whānau spent a year healing.
Reaching for the stars
During this time, she finally decided to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor.
In her school days, a teacher she admired had knocked her confidence when she told her she would not make it as a doctor.
“Looking back at it, her message actually drove me to continue with this pathway. But I think that what drove me was a sense of purpose – and then I was going to strive to become the best doctor I could, despite what she thought of me.”
She put all that to the side when she got over the fear of failure and applied to get into Otago University’s Medical School.
“I finally came to the realisation that I had been through far worse in my life, that a rejection letter from the University of Otago wasn’t going to phase me.”
Albert was accepted into the medical school but had more challenges thrown her way at the start of 2020.
“So I have an amazing superpower called insomnia because I had twin boys who would never sleep. So staying up was something I could do,” she said.
“I would have to study out of sync with them so that they could do their lessons and I would do mine between nine…most of the time it went till three but I’d finish around five in the morning.”
Leigh is now looking forward to 2023 where she will start working hands-on with patients and continue to make a difference in people’s lives.
“I am super excited. I’ve always ever wanted to be in a position to be able to help patients in their darkest moments.
“The hospital always brings people of every denomination, race, creed and background. And I wanted to be able to be to give them whatever help I could.”
She hopes to set an example to others through hard work that anything is achievable.
“I can only say that from what I’ve experienced, many people go into a Hurt Locker.
“There’s different ways each of us go into there, what defines you as a person is how you get out of it, and what you put in place to make sure that those who find themselves in it, that you can help them get out as well.
“Through my example, I can hopefully show people that it is possible to reach for the moon and maybe you’ll hit a star.
“That it’s possible just to keep on going even though you feel like it’s not possible at all. I think that in our greatest fears, we find our strength is beyond measure.”