Brave woman undergoes lifesaving surgery for facial tumour

By One News / TVNZ. Republished with permission

Most of New Zealand is still asleep, but Auckland doctor Zac Moaveni is already at hospital scrubbing up.

Vea Koloa. Source: Sunday

It wasn’t his young children who got him up before dawn, if he wanted to he could still be in bed.

But today is special. Today Zac and a small group of colleagues have volunteered to perform a marathon surgery which they hope will save a woman’s life.

“I couldn’t think of anything better to do on a Sunday than do this for her,” says Zac.

“A lot could go wrong though – I’d be lying if I said I don’t get nervous.”

Their patient is Vea Koloa, a 36-year-old mother of nine children.

Vea lives with her husband Paipa just outside Nuku’alofa in Tonga.

Six years ago her face started swelling.

A tumour kept on growing and growing until it became as big as her head. This year she’s had trouble eating and breathing. So Vea’s doctor in Tonga contacted Zac Moaveni.

“It’s called an ameloblastoma, which is a benign tumour,” says Zac.

“In New Zealand most patients who get them go to a dentist with a bit of swelling and toothache and get it sorted out.”

However, this is by far the biggest tumour of its kind Zac has ever seen.

Tonga doesn’t have a health service capable of treating it and neither Vea nor the Tongan Government can afford the full cost of surgery in a country which does.

So Zac has brokered a deal – the Tongan Government will pay some money, an Auckland private hospital has offered its services at cost and and surgeons Zac Moaveni and Joseph Chen (plastics), Muammar Abu-Serriah (oral and jaw) and Andrew Cho (ear, nose and throat) will do the surgery for free.

Now Vea’s husband Paipa is left at home looking after the kids while Vea, after navigating MIQ, is in Auckland staying with her “aunty” Api.

Zac Moaveni has a well-deserved reputation in the Pacific as a Kiwi plastic surgeon with a compassionate streak.

Yes, he has both private and public health clinics in Auckland but as regular as clockwork is out there doing charity work.

Sunday first met him 12 years ago in Fiji.

Back then he was part of a volunteer surgical team from Australia and New Zealand called Interplast, a charity which reaches across the Pacific and south east Asia, providing surgery for people who might otherwise be disfigured for life.

In the dilapidated Lautoka Hospital they were repairing cleft palates and minor burns.

They organised a mercy flight to Auckland for a boy slowly dying of serious burns who could not be treated in Fiji.

Lautoka Hospital had been state-of-the-art when it opened in the early 1970s, but 30 years on there was no funding to carry out even the most basic maintenance.

These days Zac volunteers in the Solomon Islands where patients travel for days across the archipelago.

“I’ve travelled through many countries in the Pacific. People live under totally different conditions with far less access to what we would see as basic human rights, education, medical care and yet they live with such incredible dignity and humility.”

Zac Moaveni knows about basic human rights.

He was born in Iran and spent his formative years witnessing his former homeland wracked by revolution and war.

By 1985, aged just 14, Zac was due to be conscripted into the Iranian Army.

His dad, an engineer, had other plans and the Moaveni’s moved to South Korea where Zac began learning English.

“We became friends with some Kiwis at the university there and they suggested we might like Wellington.”

No sooner said than done by age 15 Zac was enrolled at Tawa College in Wellington followed by Otago University Medical School.

A decade later he became a plastic surgeon working at Waikato Hospital where he met nursing colleague Primila Faloon.

He was removing dressings to check a patient’s recent surgery.

“Primila was not impressed because she had only just finished dressing the patient,” the softly spoken Zac was as usual diplomatic.

“I told her what a great job she had done, which she had.”

The doctor, nurse chemistry was just right. Eighteen years on Zac and “my Queen” Primila have five children.

It’s not hard to see how easily Zac can relate to the needs of a Tongan mother of nine.

“Vea is an incredibly inspirational person. What she has put up with, without complaining is humbling.”

One of those needs is to fund Vea’s on-going care. Her friends have set up a page to help her. It’s at #Vea.

You can watch Vea’s journey TONIGHT on SUNDAY, 7.30pm on TVNZ1.


  1. Thank you Zac Moaveni! You are a great blessing to our people! God Bless you and your family and Colleagues!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here