women turning challenges into a reason to be grateful
Christmas is a time when we feel grateful for the good things in our lives and, for some, that gratitude is considerably more heartfelt than most. The Australian Women’s Weekly talks to three women whose lives were transformed by the generosity and kindness of others.
Sometimes, when life throws curveball after curveball at you, the only thing that gets you through is the faith – however small – that things can only get better. In early 2019, Meli Berends will celebrate two milestones: the first birthday of her youngest son Tomi, and 10 years since her breast cancer diagnosis. Back in 2009, Meli was 33 and a single mother to 18-month-old Eli when she was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. She had moved home from the Gold Coast to be with her mother, Tomi, who had been diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. Back in Christchurch, Meli had crawled into bed one night, her hand flopping onto her chest when she lay down. She felt a lump – a big one. Meli knew she was a high-risk candidate, because after her mother’s diagnosis she had been identified as having the BRCA 1 gene. “At the time, I had thought ‘knowledge is power’, and I was due to start my screening soon. But it was too late.” After her cancer fears were confirmed – there were three tumours – Meli says one of the hardest parts was telling her mum. “She was devastated. She had been through so much chemo and she didn’t want that for her daughter.” A double mastectomy followed, and chemotherapy, which meant she would most likely become infertile. She was heartbroken. “I went to tell Mum and we both cried together.” But then, a phone call. Meli’s surgeon, Malcolm Ward, had put in a request to a fertility team in Christchurch on Meli’s behalf to try and save some of her eggs. During a narrow window before Meli started chemo, the doctors removed eight eggs. At the time, the legislation for using frozen eggs hadn’t even been passed; the entire process was a giant leap of faith. But there was more to endure first. Meli’s mother became sicker just as Meli started chemotherapy. “Some days I would be so unwell I would just lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling, and Eli would play next to me. We just did what we had to do to get through.” Eli, she says, was her strength. “When I had appointments at the hospital, I never took family because you can’t ask the hard questions in front of the people who love you. You have to be strong for them. But because Eli was so little, I could take him with me.” Halfway through Meli’s chemo treatment, her mother died. And a year after she finished her treatment, Meli had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed. Having the BRCA 1 gene meant she had an 86 per cent chance of developing ovarian cancer. “For my peace of mind, I wanted them gone. But I grieved for all the babies I wasn’t going to have.” Slowly, life continued. Meli and Eli moved to Palmerston North so she could study photography – it had always been a passion, and her cancer experience had taught her that life is short and she should do what she loved. During this time, Meli lost another family member to cancer: her mum’s eldest sister, the beloved Aunty Lillian, who had – along with her husband – been a great support to Meli after her mother died. But there was a silver lining developing amongst the bleakest of clouds. For years, Lillian’s daughter Katy had been trying to set Meli up with a friend of hers from university. Returning home for the funeral, she decided to arrange a blind date. Meli and the friend, John, hit it off. They started properly dating in January 2014, and were married a year later. At a follow-up appointment with her oncologist in 2015, Meli was told that a pregnancy wasn’t likely to trigger a cancer. The chance of having a baby, however, was slim. But they knew they wanted to give it a go. In June last year, the fertility team thawed all eight of her eggs. Of the two that survived, only one fertilised. They had one egg, one chance. A few weeks after the egg was implanted, a blood test confirmed Meli was pregnant. And in February this year, along came baby Tomi Manawa. Tomi, after Meli’s mum, and Manawa, “because he has our heart.” Meli says she, John and Eli can’t stop pinching themselves. “The entire family is smitten with him. He’s been a blessing to all of us. If it hadn’t been for my surgeon, we wouldn’t have had this. He changed our lives.” Throughout their journey, the community around Meli and Eli provided invaluable support. There were the family members who dropped everything to help with childcare, the friends who answered every text and phone call. One friend, Anna, staged a farewell photoshoot for Meli’s breasts the day before her surgery. “It was hilarious and wonderful.” In the 10 years since her diagnosis, Meli has gained a second half to her family, but she’s also lost 17 people among her friends and relatives to cancer. This is partly because she joined the Cancer Society, which was a wonderful support, but came with its share of loss. It was the need to be here for her son, as well as the fantastic treatment she received, that kept Meli going and she wants her story to be one of hope for women diagnosed young, that there can be children after cancer. There can also be a really good life. “The toughest part was when I was having the surgeries and treatment, but since then I made a pretty good life for myself and Eli. John was the cherry on top, and now we have Tomi, who is the cherry on top for us all.” Soon after her diagnosis, when Meli’s mother was still alive but bedridden, the pair were lying together when Meli admitted she felt like she had failed in the love department. “My mum held my hand and said, ‘You will have the life you always wanted.’” And she was right.
“She said, ‘I’ve got good news for you. We’ve got a heart.’”
The 10m walk from the street to the front door of Laree Anderson’s apartment in the Auckland suburb of Mt Eden is picture perfect. Leafy, lined with flowers, filled with sunshine. But for Laree, 39, it might as well have been Mt Everest, as she suffered through the final stages of heart failure. She knew it was time. A heart transplant had been on the cards since the shock diagnosis of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy at 23 during a routine doctor’s visit ahead of her big OE. “I’m a bouncy, energetic person, but I’d always struggled with my fitness.” It had been more of a niggly annoyance than a full-on hindrance – but Laree’s OE was going to involve trekking in Nepal, and she was struggling in her training hikes. She was also a nurse who had been working in cardio wards, so she initially thought the doctor was joking when he told her she had a heart murmur, and later gave her the full diagnosis of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The blood was struggling to get through her heart because her septum in the middle was too big. It’s a problem that tends to get worse as you get older. Laree went on her OE – sans trekking – and worked as a nurse in London for a couple of years. But the fatigue increased. Back in New Zealand, she did a treadmill test to monitor her heart activity and, four minutes in, went into cardiac arrest. She had to be shocked back to life at the age of 27. The repercussions kept coming: Laree had a defibrillator implanted into her chest, which meant six months off work, and not being able to drive a car. But then bigger news dropped. About to turn 30, Laree spoke to her doctor about the likelihood of having a baby. She was single at the time, but had always known she wanted children. She was told that with her heart condition, carrying a child would be fatal. “When you’re pregnant, your heart has to pump three times as much blood. I was told a flat ‘no’; I would end up in cardiac failure and either I or the baby might die,” Laree recalls. “It was the worst thing I’ve heard in my life. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so hard.” But, after the initial shock settled, the tide began to turn. Laree met Kevin, who did something she feared would never happen after her diagnosis – he loved her unconditionally. “I’ve had lots of ‘best things’ happen to me, but he’s one of the very, very best. He just loved me. I didn’t think that kind of thing existed – maybe for other people, but not for me.” The couple married, and decided to focus on a surrogate pregnancy. They found a carrier up north. “She was just the loveliest person.” And so they had Alice, now five. But the boisterous life of having a toddler came hand in hand with Laree’s realisation that her heart was starting to fail. “I sat down with Kevin at the beginning of last year and said, ‘I think it’s time for me to talk to the transplant team.’” In mid 2017, Laree was put on the transplant list. Her health had deteriorated to the point where she was spending most of the day in bed. She would get Alice ready for kindy, sleep all day, then try and stay awake during dinner. The energy required for normal daily life was slowly disappearing. Friends and family rallied: food deliveries, babysitting; a community that kept the family going. Then, in October last year, she got the call. “It was one of the co-ordinators from the transplant team. She said, ‘I’ve got good news for you. We’ve got a heart.’” When you are on the transplant list and you get the call, you have to be at the hospital as soon as possible. Laree couldn’t get hold of anyone in her family – madly ringing her mother, sister and husband before having to get in an Uber to go the hospital. It was only when she got there that she managed to reach her husband, who had been in a meeting without his phone. The surgery was long and risky, and has possible complications that can last a lifetime. Laree is on immune suppressants, which heightens her risk of cancer. She’s also on steroids, and has nerve damage in strange places from the six-hour surgery. But she is alive. And without the heart transplant, she wouldn’t have made it to this Christmas, let alone to see her daughter grow up. The difference in Laree’s health was profound and almost immediate. Not only can she now make it to the mailbox, she can run there. She is grateful to her husband, her daughter, her family, the mums who picked up Alice from school every day while she recovered, the friends who helped whenever they could. But most of all, she is grateful to the family who said yes to donating their loved one’s heart. Organ donation is not an easy process; having “donor” on your licence isn’t enough. You still need to have the conversation with your family, so that if they are faced with a very hard decision at the very hardest time, they know your wishes. In 2017, there were 73 organ donors in New Zealand, but because one donor can save the lives of up to 10 people through organ and tissue donation, 215 people benefited. One of them was Laree, and this Christmas, as she looks back on the biggest, most intense 12 months of her life, she’ll be writing a letter to the family who saved her. “It will be a year since they lost the woman they loved,” she says. “I don’t know if she was a mum, I don’t know if she left kids behind, I don’t know anything. I just know that on that day, her family chose to say yes to give someone a second chance at life. And I wouldn’t be here without them.”
“I realised it wasn’t up to anyone else to rebuild my life.”
It seemed everyone in Hawke’s Bay knew and loved Nic Magdalinos. But none knew him better, or loved him more fervently than his partner and best friend, Vania Bailey. Darlings of the local scene – Nic ran his late father Paris’ renowned architecture studio, now known as Designworks PMA, while Vania is a top make-up artist – they were a fixture on the social circuit and could be found dialling up the glamour at local events. But just over a year ago, 36-year-old Nic fell asleep after a night out with friends, and never woke up. “I remember that day really clearly,” says Vania, 37. “I’d dropped him off to a meeting – he was expecting it to be a tough one so I was encouraging him, telling him, ‘You’ve got this!’ He got out of the car and and as I watched him go, I remember thinking, ‘What an amazing man.’” Nic finished work and went out, coming home late and the worse for wear. “Nic and I had an amazing life together,” says Vania. “He was a colourful man, with a quirky sense of humour, and I loved him and accepted him for who he was, as he did me. He definitely loved a party. At times, it was like living with a rock star – a fantastic whirlwind!” But the whirlwind could be sustained no longer. That night, after making sure her partner of 12 years was comfortable and sleeping, Vania also went to sleep, waking to find he had died. Gregarious and generous to a fault, Nic’s death was felt keenly by the entire community. Family and friends descended, a huge funeral followed, and then people began returning to their own lives, their own loving partners. “I was completely broken,” says Vania, who has a 14-year-old daughter, Akura, from a prior relationship. “My life had been blown apart. I felt as if the train I’d been on – a life that was pretty damn good, successful careers, a wonderful stepdad for my child – had derailed. The tracks were suddenly out of alignment, and there was no turning back.” There were decisions to be made, a new path to forge. Vania says it was the biggest year of her life. “When something like this happens, it is a rare opportunity to rebuild,” she offers. “After Nic’s death, I fell into Buddhism and, through that, read a lot about the ancient Japanese art of Kintsugi – where broken ceramics are repaired with gold. Through that process they become more beautiful, and stronger than they were before. That resonated with me. I realised that it wasn’t up to anyone else to rebuild my life. I had to do it myself. I allowed myself to sit with the grief and feel it all. That grief was very dark, and very raw, but I taught myself to kind of root for it, rather than push it away.” She says she’s grateful for the loving embrace of her close girlfriends and family – both hers and Nic’s. “They all nurtured me and would check up on me – I still call Nic’s mum every day. And my daughter is such a big support. She has a fabulous outlook, she makes me laugh, and she knows how to have fun.” When things were at their most painful Vania felt she was barely holding on, she was also able to turn to animals. “The best type of therapist has fur and four legs,” she laughs. “I did a lot of riding, because when I’m on my horse I don’t think of anything but what I’m doing in that moment. Grief is a tough path, and you need to give yourself a break from it from time to time – riding did that for me.” Social media, too, was a hugely positive outlet for Vania and her feelings. By describing and explaining her pain, painting a picture in little snippets, photos and quotes that she’d find and share, she was supported and guided through the first year of living without Nic. “I was inundated with beautiful messages on social media, and I was blown away by the kindness of strangers and people who might only have met Nic or myself once or twice.” There was also her career as a top brow and permanent make-up artist. Vania says it might seem frivolous to some, but by creating “a damn good set of brows” for each client coming through her doors, she found purpose. “I threw myself into work, and into helping people feel good about themselves. What Nic’s death taught me is that you never ever know what people are going through, or what they’ve experienced. I knew I just needed to treat everyone with love and care, help them feel great, make them beautiful. It’s a sort of healing through service to others – and that’s what I do, every day.” A favourite quote of Vania’s, and one she’s shared on her Facebook and Instagram pages, is from Ernest Hemingway: “We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.” “Grief is really interesting,” Vania says. “You can become very sick, you can become malnourished, you struggle to sleep. You need to learn to lean into it, to love yourself again, and to care for your whole self. No one can do that for you – it’s something you do alone and it’s the hardest thing. You learn to put yourself back together. Like the Kintsugi, with the gold. There’s always the gold.”