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‘Whānau and karakia got me through’ 

Shortly before Christmas 2020, Mereana found out she had rheumatic heart disease and needed surgery. Family and prayer helped her through the hard times. Now she’s sharing her story to help others. These are her words.

Mereana Hona shares her story of rheumatic heart disease

Ko Mereana Hona tōku ingoa. He uri ahau o te waka Mataatua Ngāti Awa Te Whānau ā Apanui. I tipu ake au i Whakatāne, i te taha tōku Whaea. Ko Te Ātihaunui a Pāpārangi tōku Pāpā.

Kei te ora tonu au koirā te mea nui, me tōku whānau tino rawe rātou.

My whānau are good, and I’m still alive. That’s the main thing. I’m here to tell my story.

I have ten children (my own children and my stepchildren) and 14 mokopuna (grandchildren). The majority of them live here in Tāmaki Makaurau. They’re my world. They’ve been very supportive through this ordeal, and I couldn’t ask for anything better.

An unexpected Christmas

It was a week before Christmas 2020. I was short of breath and having these attacks, like anxiety attacks, where I couldn’t breathe. It was happening every hour, and I thought, ‘That’s not normal!’ So, I went into A&E at Middlemore Hospital, and that’s where it all started.

Apparently, I’d had rheumatic fever and strep throat as a child, and it had done so much damage to my heart that I had two years to live. It could have been less. The doctor said, “Your heart’s not going to survive.”

Plus I also had high blood pressure. When I found out years ago, I thought, ‘High blood pressure, that’s okay.’ But left untreated, it had enlarged my aorta (the largest artery in the body). So, I had quite a few problems with my heart. I needed my aorta repaired and two heart valves replaced.

When the doctors told me, I thought, ‘I can’t! I’ve got to have Christmas, and after that, I’ve got a lot of work to do. I’ve got this plan. As you do, we’ve got this wānanga (meeting) plans.’ I said, “Oh, I can’t be in here too long. Let’s just have that operation, and we’ll be out in a week or so.”

Whānau and karakia

At first, it was tough for me to accept that I needed to have an operation. But then I thought it’s not about me. I need to get better so that I can share my life with my grandchildren and my children. I needed to do it for them and for my partner. He was there for me every day. I needed to be strong for them. So those things made me well.

Another thing that helped me get better was my spiritual side. I have my connection with God, my connection with Io. I needed to look at that in terms of prayer, karakia prayer, and I knew that would help me.

It was such an experience. As well as the physical side, I needed something else to guide me and to caress me, and that was my spiritual side. And that helped me through it.

Living with the changes

There are a few things that have changed, both physically and mentally. Something I was always proud of was my voice. I had quite a strong voice, and I love waiata (songs) and anything Māori, even doing the Karanga (calls used to welcome visitors onto the marae).

Unfortunately, the surgery has affected my korokoro (throat). I was pretty disappointed, but then I thought, ‘Kei te ora tonu koe – you’re still alive.’ And maybe in time, it will get better.

Advice for whānau

Haere ki te tākuta. Tiakina to tinana me to hauora. Go to the doctor. Take care of your body and your overall wellbeing.

It’s about looking after yourself and not being shy about it. Just go and get regular checks, and when you get medication, take it.

For example, I had high blood pressure. I’ve known I’ve had high blood pressure since I was 20. I didn’t take the pills, and that affected my heart.

And take care of your body, if not for yourself, for your grandchildren. They’re the next generation. They see how you drink, how you eat and all that stuff. So, it’s about teaching them the right things.

Get good support and find your purpose

Familiarity is the key to wellbeing. It’s about knowing the right people and being able to access services – and knowing that people actually do care.

Also, one of the things I forgot was that my whānau needed support too, in terms of processing it. It wasn’t just about me. It was about everyone I’m close to. They needed support as well. Even though they were my rongoā (healers), for my wellbeing, they needed rongoā too – they needed some sort of medicine for their wellbeing.

One thing I didn’t do well was taking care of myself. I put everyone first except myself. That’s a trait or value that my Kuia (grandmother) and my Koroua (grandfather) bought us up with – to put others first. My children tell me: “Mum, you need to look after yourself!”

But I’m getting there. It will take a while, but God’s given me a reason to live again. It’s about looking after myself, and I’ve got a new purpose in life. My purpose in life is to help others.

Update April 2023

I have had a further two open heart surgeries because of the extent and damage of my heart. They could only do one thing at a time so they placed two valves in me. A few days later I went unconscious, I also had fluid on my heart which came to the forefront after the first surgery. This was the second surgery; I’m still healing from the first. 

The third surgery I had was 8 months after the second, I had caught a bacterial infection so I had open heart surgery again to clear the infection. The infection was caused from the first surgery, I was just unlucky. After this surgery I was released two weeks later, only to go home and catch Covid that night. My heart was popping out of my chest every time I coughed so I was admitted again the next day back to the ward. Another week in hospital – I couldn't believe what I was going through. 

During this period I was in and out of hospital due to constant bleeding noses, due to new blood thinners. So I was back and forth to Auckland Hospital. I became well known in the wards. So that was on and off for five months. 

However, I am okay now. But am I fully recovered? No.

The bacteria was not meant to happen and caught whilst having the first surgery. So it will always be there. I am on antibiotics for life, to keep the infection in abeyance. 

I see life from a totally different perspective now. I am more focused, driven and full of conviction. I'm lucky I'm still alive to share my story. And that's all that counts. 

I still live life to the fullest though. I completed my master’s degree, have been working for my people, iwi and hapū. I am in Te Ao Māori world. And I have reinforced my commitment to the Lord who helped me through this ordeal. He was there every step of the way. Physically it was excruciating – changes to your body, scarring, physical restraints which in time you overcome. Having stronger faith in the Lord got me through three times. Even now I am optimistic, outgoing and nothing can stop me. I have to be strong for my children and my mokopuna. They need me and I want to be around for a while. They are my anchor. 

So get your heart checked, you never know – it could save your life. 

Please note: the views and opinions of the storyteller and related comments may not necessarily reflect those of the Heart Foundation NZ.

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  • Marion 17 October 2022

    Thank you for sharing your story. We have a Mana Kidz team who works with Rheumatic Fever in schools as a way to prevent RF early.  Your message for wahine Maori and whanau to look after themselves, to embrace, Te Reo and tikanga should be heard across the motu. Kia kaha.  He ataahua hoki tou purakau, tou kauae moko hoki Mereanna.

    Nga maiohatanga

  • Cherryl 7 August 2022

    Thanks for Mereana! I’m new to this journey and same with you I’ve been diagnosed on December but 2021.
    I’m still processing everything in my mind & my soul and hope my loved ones could cope up with this journey too. Your faith in God is amazing! Yes, we have a purpose as God has given us a purpose why we’re still here.
    God bless you & your family with good health. Take care & may you continue to inspire & be a blessing to others.

  • AVON 17 May 2022

    So happy to know you are back with your mokos and whānau. God looked down on you and covered you in his blood to keep you on this planet. Keep healthy and take care of yourself Mereana. Your whānau and mokos need you. My blessings to you all. Avon Johnson xx