Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS - Writ­ten by EMMA CLIFTON and FIONA FRASER Pho­tog­ra­phy by EMILY CHALK and FIONA TOM­LIN­SON

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.”

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