When Tawa Hunter left school in Rotorua at 16, she dreamed of becoming an actress.
Two decades, five kids and eight years of medical school later, the 45-year-old has been named Junior Doctor of the Year by the New Zealand Medical Council.
The Rotorua Hospital doctor is humble about her achievements but hopes her story can inspire others to find a career that brings them a sense of satisfaction and completion every day.
"It has been incredibly hard financially, emotionally and mentally [to get here]," Hunter told the Rotorua Daily Post.
"But now that I'm out the other end, I can't even describe what it feels like to get to make a difference. It is such an honour and a privilege to be able to do that.
"[Being a doctor] fulfils me as a person and everything that I value and stand for. That satisfaction makes it all worthwhile."
Hunter was about 35 when she decided to change careers from jewellery design to medicine.
"I had in the back of my mind that maybe the [serious career] ship had sailed. I kind of went back to the drawing board and thought, 'If I could have it over, what would I do?'".
Hunter knew she wanted to look after people and was considering psychology.
"I was talking to my mum about it and she said to me, 'if you're going to study that long, you might as well study medicine.'
"I thought that you had to be some kind of special person to be a doctor. But the more I thought about it, the more it started to make sense."
Hunter had the support of her husband and whānau throughout her journey.
"At the beginning my husband was questioning what I was up to. But when he knew I was sure he was behind me 100 per cent."
Her family's support really mattered to Hunter, especially when medical school made her feel like a "square peg in a round hole".
"I was the oldest in the class. Everyone was about the same age as my kids. Everyone was super smart and knew a whole lot that I didn't know."
Born and raised in Rotorua, Hunter proudly traces her whakapapa to the Te Kaha on the East Coast and Te Whānau-ā-Apanui. While training to be a doctor, however, she said she faced discrimination for being Māori.
"It was tough because there's a Māori and Pasifika admissions scheme which a lot of people view as unfair. I got a bit of flack going through. Some people thought I was taking someone else's place.
"There was pushback from students on the lectures about Māori and Pasifika health. Sometimes it was overwhelming for me because I knew a lot of these people were going to be looking after our people in hospitals."
The challenges pushed her to excel.
"I had this internal dialogue and said to myself that the only difference between me and them was they have more information than me. So I worked my tail off. If there was something I didn't understand I would ask. I topped the class that year."
Hunter said her experiences in medical school drive her to think about her future.
"It highlighted attitudes towards Māori and Pasifika health. I think about how I can shift some of that. I don't know how I'm going to make a difference but it's definitely in the back of my mind."
For now, Hunter's focus was her patients.
"I love being with the patients and caring for them. It's hugely satisfying when you have a patient who is vulnerable and afraid and you know that you've made them feel safe."
Hunter's advice for mothers considering a change in career is: "Just do it."
"Don't wait 'til you get to that special place where you're an amazing person full of confidence. You just have to do it. Find your pathway and follow it. When you're struggling, admit it. Ask for help. But keep going."
Staff at Rotorua Hospital honoured Hunter's achievement on Monday with a haka and presentation.
Lakes DHB chief executive Nick Saville-Wood said the hospital was delighted to have someone of Hunter's calibre and determination as a member of their staff.
"Her messaging regarding, follow your dream, and it's never to late to start are ones that resonate with so many people and will help to inspire others into a career in health.
"The success she has found in her medical career is testament to her professionalism and determination, and our DHB is very pleased to have her on board, both in the hospital and in the community settings, where she has worked as a GP."
The award is under the jurisdiction of the New Zealand Medical Council and Hunter will now be considered alongside the Australian winners for the overall prize in a virtual ceremony next month.
Medical Council chairman Dr Curtis Walker said the council nominated Hunter as its jurisdictional winner after she was nominated by senior doctors at Lakes District DHB.
He said Hunter had gone "above and beyond what is expected of the usual duties of a junior doctor, including undertaking a number of projects through which she has contributed to the education of junior doctors and also impacted positively on patient safety and organisational clinical governance.
"Hunter has been very proactive in advancing initiatives in the Māori community," he said.
"For example, she organised and delivered Hui at both the local Te Wānanga o Aotearoa Learning centre and hospital to give the Māori community the opportunity to have questions answered about organ donation."