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Car accident exposes serious heart condition

Rotorua local, Wiremu Keepa, didn't know why he kept blacking out. But when it happened at the wheel, it uncovered a serious heart condition.


Now, the 68-year-old is calling on people to help fund life-saving research, in the Heart Foundation's Big Heart Appeal.

"I had a car accident due to blacking out at the wheel. My accident injuries were fixed, but after a follow-up at my GP they discovered I had an irregular heartbeat," says Wiremu. After visits to cardiologists in Rotorua, Waikato and Auckland, it was confirmed the father-of-two would need a heart transplant.

"I guess I was fortunate that I had my car accident, that gave me an early diagnosis of my condition," he says.

That was the beginning of a five-year wait. Luckily, for most of the wait, Wiremu was quite active refereeing rugby, studying and enjoying life. But as time went on, his health began to decline and he became more and more weak and tired.

"One day I got the phone call from the heart transplant coordinator asking me to come to Greenlane Hospital straight away. There was no mention of a possible transplant operation, so I drove myself to Auckland blissfully unaware. I didn't even say horray to my children, mother or family," says Wiremu.

But on arrival at the hospital he was promptly wheeled into the pre-operating room with two other patients.

"They were both waiting for a lung from the same donor as me. I gave a mihi and a short karakia to them both before we went in. Sadly one passed away about six days after his operation and the other about eight years after," he says.

Wiremu made it through the surgery and woke to see his three sisters standing at the foot of his bed.

"Seeing my sisters lifted my spirits immensely. I didn't have any rejections or complications. Every day I got stronger and with the excellent care I got from the doctors, nursing staff and physiotherapy, helped to return to my life at home," he says. The road to recovery wasn't without its challenges though.

"I did feel like my memory lapsed as I couldn’t recall things as sharply as I used to. I knew this was only temporary, but it was strange all the same. Sadly, I was not quite myself as I would often snap and get moody. But I was reassured this was temporary and part of recovery," says Wiremu. Wiremu met the wife of the heart donor at a church service for donor families and organ recipients.

"After the service a person came up to me and asked whether I'd like to meet the donor wife. I immediately agreed. When she approached me, I hugged her, then I grabbed her hand and placed it on my chest so she could feel the beat of her husband's heart. I still keep in touch with her, I even sent her a copy of my chest x-ray so she can 'see' her husband's heart," he says.

"I've been really fortunate with my heart. It's a great heart. I really do have to acknowledge the donor and his wife for without their extreme kindness, I quite possibly wouldn't be telling my story," says Wiremu.

Cardiovascular disease is the single biggest killer of men and women in New Zealand, and Wiremu is calling for people to show their big heart, by supporting its Big Heart Appeal street collection. "We have a long and proud record of research investment, which has improved the heart health of all New Zealanders for more than 50 years, but we still have much more work to do," says Heart Foundation Medical Director, Dr Gerry Devlin.

Wiremu is supporting the Heart Foundation and research by volunteering in the upcoming annual street collection.

"I've volunteered to help the Heart Foundation with this year's street collection, as it's my very small way of giving back. An hour or two to give is miniscule in my life, an extension on my life so it’s easy to give. I believe the collection day is great for public awareness and heart disease. We need to learn how to combat heart disease, so yes this is a great way and day. Research is important. Funding is always needed. Hopefully this public appeal for funding will go some way toward further research," says Wiremu.

With your support, and the Heart Foundation's ongoing commitment to supporting research, we can keep saving lives and improve the quality of life for the 170,000 New Zealanders who are living with heart disease.

"Life is great, my two boys are great, my mokopuna are adorable and I'm very happy," says Wiremu. Street collectors will be in your neighbourhood for the Heart Foundation Big Heart Appeal street collection, on Friday 19 and Saturday 20 February 2021.

You can donate online, or by calling the Heart Foundation on 0800 830 100.

Donate now