Aroha Nui's Iripa and Jess reveal the silent killer that nearly took their son

The breakout stars of the new TV series reveal the family struggle that will always haunt them

By Hayley Barnett
Bay of Plenty marriage celebrants Iripa Rangi and Jess Phillips love their work. That's evident in the new TV series Aroha Nui: Say I Do, which follows the lives of Māori wedding officiants as they guide couples to the altar.
Jess and Iripa's passion for helping people to celebrate the beginning of their journey together is as touching as the ceremonies themselves, but it was near the start of their own marriage that Iripa, 32, and Jess, 30, came close to tragedy, a time they're often reminded of when new couples talk about starting their families.
Three years ago, when the bilingual Papamoa couple found out they were expecting their son Rameka, they were over the moon. Tips and words of wisdom from wha-nau and friends came pouring in, but it was one particular piece of advice that stuck in Jess' mind – while working as an occupational therapist, she was warned by a physio about a condition called cholestasis.
"My co-worker had suffered from it herself and said to me, 'If you get itchy hands and feet, talk to your midwife.' I'd never heard of it and thought it was a strange thing to say, but it stuck in my brain."
Jess knew it was normal to feel a bit itchy while expecting, when everything is stretching and expanding, but partway through her own pregnancy, she developed a slight itch on one foot.
"It's actually not a typical presentation of cholestasis," explains Jess. "People are usually so itchy, they need to put their hands in buckets of ice and they can't sleep. But I kept thinking about the warning."
Jess and Iripa's big day
She decided to mention it to her midwife, who arranged a blood test "just in case" and, sure enough, she was diagnosed with what has been termed as "the silent killer". Jess tells, "The stars aligned to let me know and it turned out I had a reasonably bad case of it."
Cholestasis is a condition in which bile can't flow from the liver to the small intestine. In pregnancy, if nothing is done, it can cause a late stillbirth. "I was given medication, but it didn't slow my bile acids down," says Jess. "Every time I had a blood test, my numbers would double, so I was induced at 37 weeks."
Jess' body didn't respond well to the induction. Rameka's heartbeat dropped and they were rushed into theatre for a Caesarean section.
"With Jess' health back-ground, she understood a lot more than perhaps your average person," says Iripa, who is of Ngāi Tuhoe descent. "But ignorance is often bliss in those situations. Seeing your wife go through all those challenges and not being able to do anything,it was difficult."
Rameka is now thriving under his parents' doting care.
Thankfully, Rameka and Jess made it through the labour, but their struggle didn't end there. The wee boy suffered from laryngomalacia, an abnormality that occurs when cartilage in the throat is underdeveloped. When feeding, he would make a squeaking sound, which was a sign milk could be entering his lungs, and he'd regularly gasp for air in his sleep.
"It definitely did a number on my mind," says Jess. "But Iripa was great with everything he'd learned through his job."
A physical education officer for the New Zealand Police, Iripa recognised Jess' need for professional help and found a psychologist who specialised in women's health.
"We went together to sessions," tells Jess. "My mind was so full of newborn stuff, so Pa knew he had to take the lead and book the sessions. After a while, he left me to it and, only a few sessions later, I felt so much better about everything. Sometimes all you need is someone external to talk things through with."
At about four months old, Rameka began breathing normally through the night. "Some kids need to have surgery to resolve it, so we were very lucky in the end," says Jess.
Jess and Iripa's big day was so joyous, the couple have made a career out of marrying others
These days, she and Iripa still count their blessings – they know their situation could be very different if it wasn't for that one comment.
"Even if I knew about cholestasis, I would probably only have said something if my foot felt like it was on fire," Jess reflects. "I wonder how many people have had to experience all that grief and trauma when all it would've taken was a blood test to prevent it."
Now, with a happy and healthy two-year-old, the family has begun talking about adding another new member to the fold – well, Rameka has anyway.
Jess laughs, "Every day, Rameka says to me, 'Make a sister?' I have no idea where that came from, but we would love to give him a sibling. We'll just have to see what happens."
Aroha Nui: Say I Do screens 9.25pm Mondays on TVNZ 2.

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