Tessa takes new path to Cambridge

07 October 2016
Tessa Morgan
Palliative care researcher Tessa Morgan volunteers at the Mercy Hospice in College Hill to help out and gain first-hand experience of end-of-life care.

Palliative care researcher, Tessa Morgan has turned her Arts degree into a career in medical research.

Tessa (22) is one of only four students in New Zealand to be selected recently for the lucrative and prestigious, Woolf Fisher Scholarship to the University of Cambridge in England.

She will take up her scholarship in a year’s time to study for a four-year doctorate focussed on palliative care looking at issues relating to gender and family caregiving at end of life.

Her goal is to be a leader in the field of palliative care and to lead a New Zealand-based research institute.

Tessa is a former Dux and academic captain from Rotorua Girls High School where she gained many college and community awards (including the Rotorua Young Achievers Award and the Rotorua Energy Trust Role Model Award).

She left Rotorua in 2012 to take up a University of Auckland Undergraduate Scholarship, studying for a Bachelor of Arts in Politics and History, and is now finishing her Honours in History while she works part-time as a research assistant at the School of Nursing in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.

“In my arts degree I was looking at social justice issues such as access to education and I realised that women are marginalised in a lot of different ways,” says Tessa. “They are valued less and have to push hard to be heard. For me it’s important to value everyone and have equal opportunities.”

It was when she was volunteering as the Women’s Rights Officer for the Auckland University Student Association that she saw the invitation for a student interested in gender issues to apply for a Summer Scholarship in palliative care issues at the School of Nursing.

She says the summer scholarship opportunity has taken her interest in gender and feminist issues in a new direction.

“At that stage I didn’t know what palliative care was, but that same month my Uncle in Sydney had a severe stroke and we went to visit him. He went into palliative care and so I had an insight into the type of care he was receiving.”

Her summer scholarship was based on 'gender and family caregiving in the context of old age: a systematic review' which was published in the journal, Palliative Medicine - one of several research publications that now include Tessa as a co-author.

The review will lay the foundation for her doctoral studies in palliative care at the University of Cambridge.

For the past year, Tessa has also volunteered at the Mercy Hospice in College Hill, in the in-patient unit, mainly talking to family members and observing death and dying first hand.

“It was a special privilege to watch people die in that setting and it made me realise how important palliative care is for patients and families,” she says.

Earlier this year, Tessa also represented New Zealand at the U21 Global Ageing Conference in Mexico, where she presented on the MBIE-funded Aging Well Social Isolation in Older Adults study.

Her honours study blends both history and issues around dying, as she examines the contributions of ageing and dying in the writings of a health community from the Early Modern Period (1500 to 1750) – from the perspective of an older Quaker woman reflecting on her life when she is about to die.

“Not many people study dying – there is increased study on ageing, but very few people looking at ageing from a dying perspective,” she says.

“It’s good to be able to focus on improving well-being before dying,” says Tessa. “My topic doesn’t focus so much on patients, but on their caregivers and how important it is that caregivers are supported. It looks at the quality of both patient care and of support for the family in the community.”

“Women are culturally constructed to care and it is normal that women take on the role of carer at the end of life,” says Tessa. “But women are also more likely to have physical and mental impacts from this.”

“My PhD will look at not just the constructions of care, but also consider whether family carers make autonomous decisions. Do women have free choice to provide care? And what does that mean for those caring for people dying?”

Her doctorate examines how gender influences family care-givers decisions to provide end of life care and subsequently how gender-specific interventions can be designed to help support family caregivers' physical and mental wellbeing.

“I am hoping this will help produce gender sensitive strategies for men and women involved in end of life care, as they have different issues. For example, men are less likely to report their emotional struggles and they can be provided support services in a more active setting for this,” she says. “There may also be strategies for improving end of life care in aged residential facilities.”

For the next year, Tessa is working fulltime in the School of Nursing, as a research assistant to support the work of the Te Arai Palliative and End of Life Care Group and as Project Manager of the MBIE-funded Social Isolation and Loneliness Study which is a two-year project.

The Woolf Fisher Scholarship is funded by the Woolf Fisher Trust, supported by the Cambridge Trust. It covers the students’ study and living costs at Cambridge and is estimated to have a value of $300,000 per student, making it one of the most generous scholarships available to New Zealand students.

Sir Woolf Fisher (1912-1975), co-founder of Fisher and Paykel, set up his Trust in 1960 to recognise and reward excellence in education. The Scholarship selects young New Zealanders based on their outstanding academic ability, leadership potential as well as their integrity, vision and capacity for work.

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