‘The day I lost my sight in my left eye, ironically was the day that my vision became clearest’
In 2008, I realised that my life had gone in a direction that I had never intended, that I had wasted so many opportunities, and I hadn’t lived up to my potential. It was a hard reality to come to terms with, And when my sight was taken from my left eye, I finally realised that my future was in my own hands and that the blessings that God had given to me I had squandered. So I prayed for a second chance, I asked God to give me my sight back, and I promised not to take my gifts for granted again.
So on December 19th 2011 God answered my prayer when he gave me a second chance by giving me the ultimate christmas gift. The chance to see clearly again. But so many of my friends were unaware of why I needed an operation and what had occurred in my past to have driven me to this point. Instead of trying to explain it individually, I decided to come clean on my blog, to explain the long and arduous process and sequence of events that have shaped my life, my future, and ultimately now, my vision.
When I was 5 years old, my Mother took me on my first trip to Samoa, the memories I have of this trip is nothing but pleasant. I fell in love with the beautiful scenery, the beaches, and loved being around family. At this point, my Sisters were living in Samoa while I was living in New Zealand, so I was effectively an only child for most of this time. It was the first time I got to meet any of them on this trip. Because I was really young, I don’t have much recollection of the finer details. What I do remember is that it was on this trip to Samoa that I developed what would become an inescapable part of my life, and that was my horrendous eye allergy that eventually developed into a rare condition that baffled the doctors in New Zealand for my entire childhood.
Upon return to New Zealand, my eyes would be red all the time, my Mum took me to our local GP who said that It was just irritated and that it would eventually go away. In fact it didn’t go away, it got worse. So my Mum took me to more doctors and we would eventually get the same answer. Mum then did what any Samoan mother of the time would have done, she sought out treatment for me from Samoan traditional healers. We visited so many over the years that I lost count and practically we visited every possible Samoan Traditional Healer in Auckland. There was one in particular that I remember who did his craft by cards, a kinda clairvoyant. He read my cards using a normal 52 card deck, he managed to name me, my address, my age, my parents names, my school, my school teachers name and I remember being freaked out because it was the first time my Mum or I had ever met him. Hopes were high that he would be able to help me. So he treated me, and initially my condition would go away, and then it would come back again, and this was a never ending process with everyone we saw.
Then there was the lady in Clendon who I will never forget that used a type of medicine from leaves that we call fu’asina (all Samoans are familiar with this leaf) she would cover me in the stuff. And then she would force me to drink what seemed like bucket loads of it till I threw up, and I would throw up the entire bucket load again. Meanwhile she would massage my body with the bones of her fingers, it was so painful, and then to finish the process she used her thumbs to press my eyeballs back into my head like they were being squished to death, And I screamed so badly I remember my Mum saying that it was ok, and that it’s what we needed to do. According to this lady, when I was a kid in Samoa, I had played on a beach that was ‘sa’ or taboo’ed, and a spirit had entered into my body, so she forcibly tried to remove it from me! LOL Needless to say this was THE worst experience I’d ever had with a Samoan healer.
And there were plenty others in both Samoa and New Zealand that I went to try and have my eyes fixed by, and we didn’t stop there either. Eventually, when I got to intermediate, it was obvious that the doctors we were visiting didn’t know how to explain my situation. Our local GP kept telling my Mum not to worry, that it would never affect my sight and that I would grow out of it eventually. But my Mum knew deep down that something wasn’t right and started looking for more expert opinion. I remember the day where the doctor said to my Mum don’t worry about it and my Mum said to him to be quiet and refer us to a specialist. She knew better than him. LOL
So we started to visit specialists at the Opthamolagy Clinic at Middlemore hospital. We soon found out that at the time, this was the most under-resourced eye clinic in New Zealand in the poorest area with the worst facilities imaginable. (It was also the hospital I was born in) We would always have to wait for nearly 3 hours to see a doctor and then we would be skirted away as soon as possible, and my Mum knew that the care I was getting there was far from expert, or specialist due to the limitations in time and resources.
By this time, I had entered high school, and my condition was getting worse, people were starting to stop me in the street saying things like “bro you’re WASTED” and I remember my new graphics and design teacher stopping the lesson midway to accuse me of being ‘high’ he called my eyes ‘wicked’ after I explained to him my condition. My siblings even got in on the act, they called me ‘Winfield Red’, (one of my middle names is Winfred). I was the kid with the ‘mauli eyes’ to people who had never met me. And it was from here that I developed a strong dislike of entering rooms on my own, or meeting people on my own without being introduced. I always thought that people would be scared of me because of my eyes before I could even explain why my eyes were the way they were, and eventually I developed an intense inferiority complex which was exacerbated by the problems of adolescence.
Yet throughout this, my Mum kept looking for a way to fix my condition, she never gave up and didn’t let our circumstances stop us from trying to find a solution, and when I was 4th form, she bit the bullet, this single parent with no secure job, little money and savings and made the decision to take me to private experts. One consultation with these guys cost me at least $120 just to visit them, and then there was the medication that wasn’t funded by pharmac and the bi-weekly visits would add up. But she always found a way to make sure that I could pay for it. And that normally would mean my sisters who were older than me and were working and studying at University at this stage would help my Mum to pay for things so they could pay for my eye appointments. My Uncle would give my Mum money to pay for my school supplies and most of my lunch money, and when I was legal to work, I started working as well so I could fund my own expenses. Thus by the time I reached my final year of high school, the harsh realities of life wasn’t so much of a shock for me. What was more remarkable about this period of time is that my Mum can’t drive. She has never driven before in her life, so going to my appointments meant one of my Mum’s friends, My Auntie, My Uncle, My Sister’s, the Bus, the Train were all methods of how I got to the clinic in Remuera from my Mangere School or my Manurewa home.
There are so many people I want to thank for helping us during this period, the beauty of being Samoan is that people that I wasn’t related to would out of sheer love and care for my Mum, take time out of their day to make sure that I could be taken to my appointments or picked up from hospitals, given food at lunch time. I had bus drivers, drag queens, prostitutes, and all sorts of people drive me to my appointments. And you wonder why I’m so liberal minded. My childhood taught me that goodness lies in all people, irrespective of what society thinks of them.
Incredibly, I managed to do really well at school, and I picked up a partial scholarship for my first year at university and also excelled in my first two years academically. My proudest moment came when I topped an entire class, I was building momentum for my future, made strong networks and was in a really good shape, because I had worked continuously since I was 15, I was able to get really decent part-time work for a student, I worked for a major finance company and everything was on the up. But in my final year of my undergraduate degree, my vision began to deteriorate. I had neglected my appointments, I was fed up with the whole process. I didn’t want to see another doctor ever again. But it was the worst possible time to do this.
As my vision deteriorated so did my motivation. I graduated with my undergrad and was given a direct entry into the honours program leading to the one year MA, but when everything seemed to be lining up perfectly, it all went wrong. I became distracted by other things, the teenage life that I was denied came back to haunt me, I felt like after graduation that it was time for me to find me, to experiment with life. I stopped attending classes, University wasn’t important, only drinking was and having a good time. I kept drinking as much as I could, I’d take time off work because of bad hangovers and stopped attending meetings for the various committee’s I had been elected to. And it was in response to the fact that I felt like my vision was going, To sum up, I felt sorry for myself. By this point I was also the heaviest I had ever been in my life. I topped the scales at 162kilos. I was morbidly obese, I gained nearly 50kilos in four years. With my vision going quite literally and figuratively it was at this lowest point of my life that I gained the greatest clarity.
I knew that a change had to happen, and that I needn’t give up, the doctors in New Zealand said that I now needed a transplant in my left eye if I was to have any chance of seeing properly again Bad news was that my condition was so rare and high risk that they were not able to secure funding for the surgery. If you are not from NZ, our health system is free for all, but only if it is part of the ‘funded’ category, mine however, was not. So I would have pay for it myself, the cost was just too insurmountable for me. It was close to $20,000 for one eye. When this information came to light, I knew that I had been painted into a wall. Because now my right eye had started to show signs of going. There was a real risk that I was going to go totally blind.
So I decided that if it was indeed the last time I would ever be able to have full vision I was going to make the most of the time I had left, I put all of my mistakes behind me and I moved forward. Most importantly I forgave myself for my errors and decided I’d go out and see the world. And thankfully a friend presented me with an opportunity to come to Korea and teach English for a year. I jumped at the opportunity.and the change was the single most important decision I ever made.
I worked on my body physically while here, I experienced things that I only ever read about, I travelled around Asia, made it to London and most importantly I sought out medical treatment. And I also made the move back to study. I was ready to pursue my dream again, to get back to working in the political sphere.
Meanwhile the doctors here were baffled at how my condition was allowed to get so bad in New Zealand, and they told me the truth, that I was extremely high risk, but not impossible to treat. So I went on an intensive treatment program that lasted nearly a year. And when it was complete my doctor finally said to me that I could be put on the transplant list and they would let me know when a donor became available. In November 2010 a donor became available, but upon extraction of the tissue it was discovered that the tissue was damaged and couldn’t be used so I wasn’t going to get the operation then. And it was at this point I made a promise to God that I would give up smoking and never take my opportunities for granted again if he would grant me a donor, I’ve kept my word, and a year later, God heard my prayer and promise.
So as I sat on the hospital bed at Seoul National University Hospital on the weekend when all my visitors left, I thought back to all the years, the experiences, the money, the sacrifices that people made for me and I openly wept. I cried so hard that I was scared that someone would hear me, but I didn’t care, I cried firstly for my Mother who had fought so hard for me her entire life, I cried for my Sister’s who had invested so much care and love in me, for my Aunt and Uncle and the sacrifices they made, and I cried for all my friends and family back home who had given so much for me to succeed, not only in having my sight restored but so that I could fulfill the migrant dream. I cried because I knew that this was my second chance, this is what I had been praying my entire life for, and I cried because I knew that it was part of my new found resolve to never take anything for granted anymore.
So many people have helped me in Korea since I moved here that it would be impossible to name all of them, but one person in particular I owe so much to, and that is Anina Cowie. She was the woman who first introduced me to this hospital, waited with me at the appointments, took me to my operation, fed me, looked after me as I came out of hospital and called my Mum to keep her updated with everything that was going on. I will miss you so much, you are a true sister to us all here in Korea.
Second chances come to those who ask, but rarely do we take our opportunities in this lifetime. My experience has shown me that there is nothing in this world that isn’t worth fighting for if you believe in it. I owe it to myself and to all those behind me to live my life to the fullest.
God Bless and Merry Christmas.
PS I’d like to thank everyone who has believed in me, supported me, given me a ride, a puff, a shot, a shoulder to cry on, a $5 bill for lunch money and shown me love over the course of my lifetime. I can’t promise I will succeed, but I will guarantee that I won’t ever give up trying.