Real Life

Warrior princess: Whanau gets me through

This brave teen has true fighting spirit

To her family, she’s known as the “Warrior Princess”, a young woman who has battled the odds for most of her short life yet lived each day to its fullest.

“Live life happy and healthy, and love whanau,” says 13-year-old Venessa Brooker-Numanga from her hospital bed at Starship children’s hospital in Auckland. “That’s my mantra for life.”

Venessa was diagnosed with a brain tumour when she was four. Although the courageous teenager has had surgeries to remove parts of the cancer and drain fluid from her brain, the tumour is inoperable because it lies so dangerously close to her hypothalamus, the pea-sized part of the brain that controls many of its vital functions.

“We make the most of today and every day that we are all here,” says Venessa’s mum Tracey Numanga, 41. Venessa’s diagnosis not only threw the wee girl’s future into doubt but robbed her of her sight. “What do you say to a four-year-old when she asks why she can’t see any more?” asks Tracey. “It was heartbreaking and it was scary for Venessa.” Yet despite living in a world of darkness – and spending long stints in hospital – the teen from Tokoroa never feels sorry for herself.

Her room at Starship, where she is undergoing radiation therapy and yet another round of chemotherapy, is overflowing with family on any given day. “We sing, we play the guitar, we laugh,” Tracey says with a smile.

Tracey has been at her only child’s bedside every day of every hospital visit. Venessa’s stepfather Tua Numanga, father Sean Chiswell and her beloved grandparents, Norman and Denise Brooker, are never far away and other family members visit from all over the North Island.

“Venessa is amaze-balls,” tells Tracey. “People say she’s lucky to have her whanau, but we feel lucky to have her. Venessa has an energy that draws people in.”

Her precious daughter is “the strongest person I know”, says proud Tracey (pictured here with Venessa’s stepdad Tua).

Fateful day

Venessa arrived into the world with “shaky eyes”, according to her mum Tracey. Nystagmus causes the eyes to move from side to side in a rapid motion, instead of staying fixed on an object or person.

“I mentioned it to the doctors, but no-one seemed too worried about it,” recalls Tracey. But by the age of three, Venessa was complaining of headaches and her vision was deteriorating. “One day, when she was four, she went to sleep and slept and slept,” remembers Tracey. “We couldn’t wake her – and when we did, she just wasn’t herself.”

A brain scan at Waikato Hospital revealed the cancer. The tumour was causing hydrocephalus, a build-up of cerebrospinal fluid in her brain, and was pressing on her optic nerves. “That day, she woke up blind,” tells Tracey. Venessa was at first withdrawn but slowly adapted with the support of her whanau.

Left: Venessa before she went blind. Right: “She’s a miracle,” says Venessa’s grandfather Norman.

‘Awesome years’

After a year of intensive chemo between Waikato and Starship hospitals, the little girl reached a milestone when she started primary school. At seven, she had her first of many brain surgeries to “debulk” the cancer. “The operation went well, but afterwards it turned to custard,” says Tracey. “She was out of theatre, and my husband and I were heading for a sleep, when someone rang and said, ‘Come back quick– she’s gone into cardiac arrest.’”

True to her name, Venessa the Warrior Princess made it back to Waikato for her eighth birthday. “She was in a wheelchair, but she was home,” says Tracey. After that, the teenager and her close-knit family enjoyed what Tracey calls “the awesome years”. For five years, Venessa’s health was stable. She learned braille in Maori and with the help of a teacher aide was doing well at her kura kaupapa, or Maori immersion school, at home in Tokoroa.

She met her hero, singer Stan Walker, went on a cruise ship around the Pacific with her mum and enjoyed a limousine ride for her 13th birthday with her closest friends and family. But on Labour Weekend last year, the good years came to an abrupt end. Venessa was staying with her grandparents, Denise and Norman, when she suffered a seizure and was rushed to hospital. The cancer was back – and more aggressive than ever.

Since then, the plucky teen has remained in hospital and undergone five further surgeries. “No matter what she goes through, her spirit shines,” says her proud mum. “After her last surgery, they took her to recovery and the first thing she said was thank you to all the surgeons for taking care of her.” Now Venessa’s family is hoping the latest chemotherapy and radiation will give them more time with their precious girl. Her beloved koro Norman says they’ll continue to surround her with love and laughter. “Venessa is the heart of our whanau,” he reveals.

“She’s a miracle and she’s the strongest person I know.”

Venessa puckers up with her idol, Stan Walker.

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