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The young migrant rising quickly through the medical ranks

Chandu Nair. Photo/Tony Nyberg/Listener

Chancing his arm with a foreign nursing qualification, Chandu Nair impressed his superiors and built a new future. 

He arrived five years ago, a 27-year-old Indian trailing a Samsonite suitcase. He came through Immigration at Auckland Airport, and they asked him, “Why are you here?” In that moment he felt scared. He was here to convert his Indian nursing qualification into a New Zealand bachelor of nursing, but he had no certain job prospects, and as a six-week tourist visa was stamped in his passport, he was warned that if he didn’t get the job he was hoping for, he would have to leave the country.

“That’s the scary part,” says Chandu Nair. “You spend the money and you come here, and if you get a job you’re lucky.” He had $1200 in his pocket to support himself, a loan from his father’s retirement money. Repayment depended on that job and gaining a three-year work visa.

That was the start of Nair’s rapid rise to a key position in Auckland medicine. His experience in heart wards in India quickly got him a job at North Shore Hospital’s cardiology unit, and cardiologists there were impressed with his skills. They suggested medical school. He applied but was insufficiently qualified, and decided instead to upskill to a nurse practitioner’s degree. The cost of study was prohibitive on a nurse’s basic salary, and the Waitematā District Health Board turned down his application for a study grant, but the cardiologists who worked with him had other ideas.

“He put his head down and worked his butt off from day one,” says senior North Shore Hospital cardiologist Guy Armstrong, who also happened to be chair of the AH Couch Auckland Heart Trust, a privately run charity that funds heart research and training of nursing staff and young doctors.

“As a result of his work ethic and ability, the trust enthusiastically supported him.”

Nair says the Couch money was a first stepping stone. “It was the catalyst. If I hadn’t got that money or got that first chance, it would have been much harder.”

He got top grades in his first year, and by then, too, Nair was beginning to switch between hands-on clinical work and a management role within his unit, gaining sufficient NZQA international quality-assessment points to convert his Indian master’s degree in management to its New Zealand equivalent.

“I slowly took on a managing role as well, when my manager was away,” he says. “That exposed me to a wider area where I realised I could grow.”

Midway through 2018, he was offered the job of clinical manager at Intra, a standalone centre within Epsom’s Mercy-Ascot Hospital that uses catheter imaging to inspect and repair coronary and other arteries, and to treat tumours. Last year, Intra expanded to a new centre at Southern Cross Hospital in Wairau Rd, Glenfield. The centre is equipped with state-of-the-art diagnostic and treatment tools and its patients can even choose to relax under a “starry skies” ceiling projection that replicates, accurately, the night sky itself. Nair’s job extends to that centre, too. As a result, he has paused the last year of the nurse practitioner’s degree. The new job, he says, requires all his time.

On the way to his Intra role, has Nair experienced the kind of casual street racism that’s now being openly discussed, in the wake of the Christchurch mass shooting, as intolerance of immigrants?

“That’s a pretty hard question,” he says. “I can say yes, but it’s also a global phenomenon. Maybe Kiwis face the same thing sometimes, when they travel, but it’s how you interpret that. For me, I don’t want to take negative things from people. If they want to bully me with something, then I just ignore them. It’s their problem, not mine, and I don’t have time to worry about that thing. This is honest. I don’t have time to worry about their psychological issues.”

Already a permanent resident, Nair is now applying for New Zealand citizenship. India’s one-passport policy means giving up some of his rights back home, and he’s discussed that with his family there.

“I told them I saw my future was here, with marriage, and children, and growing up here. I told them the level of intolerance is very minimal in New Zealand, and that five years in New Zealand to take over this kind of management position, it is amazing, and stressful as well. True. And challenging. That’s what I always wanted.”

This article was first published in the February 8, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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