Real Life

All Black – all heart

Eroni Clarke has overcome some tough challenges in his life, but nothing has compared to almost losing his son.

A nationwide TV audience on reality show Sing Like a Superstar would rate as one of the more nerve-racking moments of former All Black Eroni Clarke’s life. All the big test matches he played in the black jersey would be up there, too. But none of them were as harrowing as the time his son EJ had to endure a seven-hour heart operation when EJ was just one-week-old.

“Nothing really compares,” says devout Christian Eroni, as he cuddles EJ (now 8). “It really made us ask, `Why us?’ But we eventually realised that some good would come of it, and we just had to put our trust in God and pray that we would understand the purpose of it all.”

EJ – Eroni Junior – was born with three defects in his heart, a rare combination that doctors had only come across once before. When he was less than a day old, a high temperature alerted medical staff that all was not well and EJ was transferred to National Women’s Hospital from Waitakere Hospital and placed in an incubator.

Eroni’s wife Siala only realised something was wrong when she discovered the incubator surrounded by doctors and nurses who were discussing her baby. “At first, when I saw them I thought `poor baby’,” she recalls. “Then I realised it was my baby and that’s when I felt really scared.”

EJ had to be transferred again to Greenlane Hospital and that’s where they found out his main arteries were in the opposite positions to normal arteries. Plus, he had narrowing of the aorta and a large hole in his heart.

Eroni says, “The only thing keeping him alive was the hole because that was allowing the blood to mix.”

Doctors told the Clarkes EJ’s condition was so severe he needed an operation immediately but there were no guarantees. “The operation was so delicate, the surgeon told us the worst case scenario was that we would lose our son,” says Eroni.” And even a slight mistake could leave him wearing a pacemaker for the rest of his life.”

Knowing this, the couple did their best to carry on as normal for the sake of their daughter Shekynah (now 10) and took her out on the day of the operation. “I was so nervous though,” says Siala. “It was such a relief to get the call that it had gone really well.”

Nevertheless, there was still an agonising wait to see if the most delicate part of the procedure had worked and there were a couple of hair-raising moments when fluid accumulated on EJ’s heart, making all the monitors beep furiously.

The couple took great comfort from praying and talking to other parents of kids with heart problems.

“There were some really hurting couples who were desperate for their child and that’s when we began to see our purpose for being in that hospital during that time,” says Eroni. “It was an amazing experience and we made some great friends.”

Eroni was due to join the Auckland Blues in Australia but stayed home until the baby was out of danger. When EJ finally came out of intensive care, Eroni joined the team, carrying on to South Africa.

“I must admit my mind was on home a lot when I wasn’t playing rugby. I’d be ringing home constantly.”

Since then, EJ has got better and better and had his last check-up three years ago. Considering the gravity of EJ’s condition, he has been fortunate only to have one operation, although he may need surgery later to correct a couple of leaks.

To look at him now, jostling with his younger brother Caleb (7) you wouldn’t guess what he’s been through. “He runs, he sings, he plays, he fights, he dresses himself and likes to do his hair and he’s cool. He’s a normal kid,” says Eroni.

“He has to be careful sometimes so we make sure we don’t work him too hard. It’s important for him to know he’s special to his parents, just like his brother and sister are, but without us treating him any differently.”

Their reward has been a little boy who loves to hug and kiss his mum and dad, even in front of his friends, and one who is happy to look after a younger child if he sees them on their own.

“He has a gift for making sure everyone’s okay,” says Eroni.

“I wanted to show our appreciation to the hospital and all the people there.” Funnily enough, the opportunity pre-sented itself during Sing Like a Superstar when Eroni had to pick a charity to donate his winnings to.

“I saw it as a way of saying thank you to all the doctors, nurses and surgeons who helped EJ.”

And while he didn’t win, Eroni has now become an ambassador for Heart Children New Zealand. “There’s always something the hospital needs that we can raise funds for and there are families going through real trying times. If we can let them know they are not alone and there are people who can help them, then that’s a way I can say thank you on behalf of EJ, Siala and my whole family.” Story: Maryvonne Gray Pictures: Phil Crawford

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