Like many physiotherapists Tainafi Lefono first got interested in the profession through sport. A First generation Samoan-New Zealander and a talented rugby player, he headed to Otago in 2006 to study health sciences.
But while playing rugby in 2007 a tackle went wrong and Tainafi suffered a spinal cord injury that left him a C7 tetraplegic. Over the following two years of intensive rehabilitation his interest in physiotherapy only increased. “I’d had a lot of injuries throughout my sporting career and I thought it seemed like a pretty cool profession. But, it wasn’t until I had my spinal injury that I really saw the importance of physio - I’d only really looked at it through the perspective of sport. It kind of changed my view of what physiotherapy is.”
By 2009 Tainafi had got back into study and by the following year he was full-time at AUT - School of Physiotherapy. “They hadn’t had anyone come through with my disability - they just said they’d give it a go and see how it goes.
“I guess for me I knew what to expect - it was a physical programme - it involves a lot of manual handling. We planned around having an assistant, usually a student a year below me, and I had to communicate to them what I needed them to do.
“It was frustrating to begin with when I just wanted to get in there and do some of the assessments and treatments myself, but after adapting to this different style of learning I quickly caught on and it became second nature. Also, going through the programme I had good mates and a good study group that made learning fun. I guess we kind of created a community at the school who enjoyed learning - it was great and we all still catch up.”
Not content with simply being a trailblazer in physiotherapy, while studying Tainafi also started to compete in wheelchair rugby internationally as a Wheel Black - just missing out on the 2016 Rio Paralympics. “It [physiotherapy] helped me to further understand my injury and its effect on my physiology, it definitely helped with my training - I was able to assess myself and match my training to help me get fit.”
As well as leading by example, Tainafi has also helped other young Pasifika people come through the profession including his involvement in a Pasifika learning village at AUT. “We [other Pasifika Student Leaders] were part of a peer-mentoring tutoring service for Pasifika students within the School of Physiotherapy to help improve and maintain the number of Pasifika students coming through the Physiotherapy programme. The tutoring allowed a space for Pasifika Physiotherapy students to learn from each other. We helped to facilitate these tutorials but it was mainly driven by the students. It made a real difference to pass rates but also provided the opportunity for students to connect with other Pasifika students.”
“I guess for me that’s about trying to engage with the youth - getting them to understand what physio is and why it’s important and how it can impact in Pasifika communities. We come out of our education knowing a lot, like about the body, and what issues are specific to that community.”
And that approach of building strong foundations so people can grow is something Tainafi carries over into his current work as a wheelchair and seating therapist in the community. It’s a job where he mainly deals with people who have had spinal injuries similar to his. “I go and see them and we figure out what the best mobility options are available that would best meet their needs at home, at work, and in the community. It is such a rewarding job because I can emphathise with my patients, we trade stories, the ups and downs, the triumph’s and its such a privilege for me to be a part of their journey.”