Heart transplant recipient honours donor by living a life that gives back
As Wiremu Keepa approaches the 20-year anniversary of his heart transplant, he reflects on the gift that has made it possible for him to live and continue learning, giving back to his community, and experiencing the joy of his mokopuna.
A car accident and the surprise discovery of a heart condition was an unexpected turn of events for Wiremu who assumed he was fit and healthy. The former navy man was still active and regularly refereeing rugby on the weekends but struggling as each day wore on.
“It made a lot of sense once I realised it wasn’t normal to be exhausted so quickly in the day.”
He was also studying his MBA at Waikato University at the time, and worked his schedule around his illness, as he couldn’t make it through the full day of classes.
“I had four and a half years on the waiting list, but I was failing rapidly in the last three months. Once I knew I was a serious candidate for a heart transplant I spoke to previous recipients and really got to grips with what this would mean for me, my whānau and iwi.”
As he prepared on the day, receiving a thorough medical shower, a nurse asked if he could hear the helicopter above the hospital: “Hear that? That’s your heart in there.”
That’s when the gravity of what was about to happen really hit him. Before entering surgery, Wiremu was wheeled in his bed beside two other waiting recipients.
“I said a karakia for us, and our medical teams, wishing us success in what we were about to go through.”
Eight hours later, Wiremu woke to find his three sisters at the edge of his bed and a new heart beating in his chest. “I was into recovery straight away, committed to making this work and giving myself the best chance at a healthy and happy life.”
Staying three months at Hearty Towers, the specialist recovery centre for heart and lung transplant recipients in Auckland, one of the final milestones for discharging is a walk up One Tree Hill, something Wiremu still remembers to this day.
“I got up there and felt my heart beating strongly and I knew I was going to be ok.”
Since that momentous walk, Wiremu has lived everyday with gratitude and conviction to make the most of his life.
“I’ve had another wee baby, and I’ve been able to watch my two older sons grow into great people who now have kids of their own.
“I’m so blessed to be surrounded by the love and presence of my mokopuna. Without my heart transplant, these moments of connection would never have transpired. I’m so lucky.”
Wiremu is also committed to giving as much back to his marae, iwi, hapū and church as he possibly can.
He’s an advocate for Te Reo, teaching when he can whilst undergoing his own learning journey, and he takes every opportunity available to share his experience and insight with those considering organ donation.
“This new heart has given me the strength and conviction to do these things, and really make sure I do whatever it is I can to give back and show my gratitude to everyone involved in my transplant journey.
“I’m always giving thanks for this gift; to the donor, their whānau, my partner, my own whānau, the doctor, nurse, everyone. I might not be able to thank them all personally, but I live my life in a way that I hope begins to show my gratitude.”
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