They’re a Kiwi mother- and-daughter singing duo who have entertained audiences around the world with their sweet harmonies.
But six months ago, Celine and Samantha Toner hit a flat note after an ordinary flight from Auckland to China became a medical emergency. The Air New Zealand plane was forced to turn around during flight after Samantha suffered from uncontrollable and unexplained seizures.
The mid-air drama occurred when the family was travelling to China to perform at an important cultural event in front of millions of TV viewers. Samantha (24) was sitting between her mother and father, Barry, when she began shaking in her sleep. Celine was horrified and immediately feared for her daughter’s life.
“At first, I thought we had hit turbulence. But then I realised Samantha was having a seizure, and she was breaking out in a rash,” explains Celine. “I was thinking, ‘What’s happening to our child?’ Her whole body was tense and her eyes were rolling back. I thought she was dying.”
Barry alerted the cabin crew, who immediately took action. Desperate for help, they asked over the PA system if there were any medical professionals on board. Fortunately, there was a British doctor in business class, who had been holidaying in New Zealand.
“He was on the phone with medical professionals from the US. He gave Samantha an injection to relax her muscles and calm her down. She was dazed and confused but went back to sleep,” recalls Celine.
The parents wondered what they would do once they reached China, but an hour and a half after the first seizure, Samantha started shaking again. The pilot decided to turn the plane around and make an emergency landing in Cairns, Australia – a diversion Barry says cost the airline $50,000.
“I was worried about the other people on the plane,” says Samantha.
“They saw me shaking and I had this horrible rash. It’s such a confined space – I could have had some terrible disease.”
Despite some concern from passengers, they all hoped Samantha would pull through, says Celine. “People were really understanding, wishing us luck as we left the plane.”
As soon as the family landed in Australia, Samantha was rushed to intensive care at Cairns Hospital for tests, which suggested she suffered from epilepsy. The condition was confirmed after they returned to Auckland a week later, and Samantha had more seizures.
“I would have the seizures in my sleep. They would make me lose my memory, make me feel fuzzy, and make it difficult to string a sentence together. I was numb when I heard the news,” says Samantha, who eventually had to leave her job as a promotions manager.
For Celine and Barry, the diagnosis came as a huge shock.
“As parents, we had a healthy child our whole lives. The side effects of the epilepsy drugs changed her personality. Seeing her go through the highs and lows was hard,” Celine says.
The medical ordeal couldn’t have come at a worse time. The mum and daughter had recorded their very first album as duo Mo Ghra (“my love”) and were in the process of promoting it and touring around the country.
The pair, who specialise in Celtic music, have gained a loyal following, performing at the recent Mission Concert in Napier, alongside singers Ronan Keating, Mel C and Sharon Corr, and are nominated for International Celtic Artist of the Year at the Australian Celtic Music Awards in May.
“We sing a lot about expats and what it’s like to be torn between two countries,” says Celine, who emigrated from Scotland to New Zealand at age 11. “We sing traditional Scottish songs, and local and Maori classics too.”
Celine adores sharing the stage with her daughter. Now that Samantha has recovered from her ordeal, and is taking medication to control her condition, the pair can’t wait to get back on stage – and release their album, Alba to Aotearoa.
“There aren’t many mother-and-daughter singing acts out there, apart from The Judds,” says Samantha. “It’s really nice to have that point of difference.”
Celine is still haunted by the mid-air drama, but she’s grateful they’ve endured the worst of it.
“Now the medication has settled, Samantha is sleeping through the night and is well rested. For the last six months, it felt like she was disappearing, but now her enthusiasm for life has returned.”
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