Real Life

From grieving mum to CEO Ana Waalkens got back to work for her kids

After tragically losing her girl, Ana came up with a plan to get back into business
Rebekah Robinson

Ana Waalkens has never been a stranger to hospital wards. For 13 years, her eldest son Bruno “grew up” in Starship Children’s Hospital after being born with genetic lung disease cystic fibrosis (CF).

Then in 2014, the mum-of-five found herself rushing to the emergency department after her twin daughter Lila, aged four, suffered a sudden asthma attack which tragically took the little girl’s life.

Struggling through the grief and navigating their new normal after separating from her children’s father, Ana didn’t think things could get any worse. However, life delivered one last sucker-punch – a near fatal bout of Covid.

The 40-year-old spent a hellish week in Auckland City Hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) after falling ill days after a growing Delta outbreak was discovered in Auckland in August 2021.

While in ICU, she had two code reds – “that’s when you’re about to die” – and hospital staff called her parents to tell them Ana was fighting for her life.

“I got hit pretty bad with it,” she recalls. “The other person I was in ICU with died.”

In hospital with Covid.

In the following weeks spent recovering in MIQ and then at home in bed, Ana’s once-hectic life became unrecognisable to her. But it also gave her the time to dream about how she wanted to rebuild her future after weathering so many storms.

“I’ve always been super-busy and managed multitasking as a single parent,” says Ana, who is mum to Bruno, 16, Bassy, 14, Tania, 12, and Tilly, eight.

“Yet when I was unwell and got home to the kids, I thought, ‘How am I going to do it?’ There I was lying on my back all day, wishing I had help – someone hands-on to do things around the house and all the ‘life-admin’ with having four kids.

“I have always loved cleaning, so not being able to vacuum drove me nuts!”

Ana began researching home organisation after becoming “addicted” to TV series The Home Edit and started imagining herself running a company like Butler Asia, which is a home concierge service for expats in Hong Kong.

Ana with her kids (from left) Tania, Bassy, Tilly and Bruno.

“It was like a lightbulb moment in terms of creating a new life for us and the type of work that was actually going to fulfil me.”

The battle-weary mum poured herself into the new business pursuit, while also attending respiratory clinics and specialist appointments for six months post-infection.

She was diagnosed with long Covid and wore a heart monitor to keep track of her tachycardia, a rapid heart rate while sitting.

“Many moments I could have defaulted to the mind-set of staying in bed, but I made the conscious decision to get up and out with the kids every day,” she tells.

Self-doubt about her business idea and abilities as “mumpreneur” also crept in.

“I thought, ‘Who is even going to want this type of help for their homes?’ But I put that thought away,” shares Ana, who has Tongan heritage. “By the end of April last year, I registered my company called Housewife, got those first few clients, then word of mouth spread and it just took off.”

Ana now employs 10 people, including her friend Tiff McLeod, whom she met in Starship years ago when Tiff’s daughter Eva, now 15, was born with a hole in her diaphragm and given a 10 percent chance of survival.

“I would have my moments while walking the hospital hallways, when Bruno was admitted with CF, and think, ‘I have the worst life ever.’ And then I’d look in Eva’s hospital room [where she stayed for five years fighting gastrointestinal failure] and it’d be a reality check for me.

“It made me realise, ‘Well, at least we can leave hospital.’ Tiff and I gave each other strength during those times.”

Ana’s son Bruno is also thriving and has not had a hospital admission since starting drug Ivacaftor two years ago.

“We’re finally experiencing normal life,” she muses. “For so long, everything revolved around CF. Then when we lost Lila, her death put CF into perspective. Losing her was my lowest of lows.”

Ana’s treasured photo of her little princesses, Lila (left) and Tania.

Lila had never even been diagnosed with asthma, but suffered from aggressive excema, which goes hand-in-hand with the common respiratory disease.

“I locked myself away until my daughter Tilly was born three months later. But in that first year of her life, I was a miserable wreck. I lost a lot of weight – the grief was horrific and literally ate me up.

“It wasn’t until my parents came over and said to me, ‘We know you’re grieving, but if you want to continue to be sad, perhaps it’s better the kids go and live with their dad.'”

Ana says their words forced her to snap out of her sadness. She started leaving the house again, taking the kids to the park and doing “normal stuff” that had been put on hold.

“I honestly don’t know how I’m as stoic as I am today,” she reflects. “My children are my whole world – they’re the ones who got me out of bed each day. But my losses have sent me on a new path and it’s one I absolutely love.”

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