Real Life

Weekly People: 'Thanks for saving my life'

Organ recipient Melanie White celebrates a special milestone.

By Aroha Awarau
At the time, Melanie White was too young to understand how her fight for survival inspired a whole community. She was born with a condition called biliary atresia and was in desperate need of a liver transplant but in 1989 that medical procedure wasn’t available in New Zealand.
Photos of Melanie, who is now 26 and works as a florist, appeared on posters with the caption: “Please help me have a chance to live”. The ailing infant’s plight moved so many people in Manawatu that they held cake stalls, performed concerts and organised many other events to help raise the $120,000 needed for the little girl and her family to travel to Australia for the life-saving operation.
In July, the Palmerston North resident celebrated 25 years since the gruelling transplant. With every passing year, Melanie is grateful for the help her family, friends and hundreds of strangers gave to save her life.
“When I was diagnosed, doctors didn’t think I would make it, yet I’ve survived all of these years,” says Melanie, who has a twin brother Jared. “I think it’s an achievement and I’m proud of how far I’ve come. My family is still moved by the generous strangers who helped me.”
Melanie with her twin brother Jared.
Like Jared, Melanie was born a normal weight, and although she had jaundice, doctors weren’t worried about her health. But at four months old, her mum Donna insisted her daughter be checked after noticing her bowel motions were white and her urine a sunshine-yellow colour.
“That’s when I was diagnosed. My liver lacked the bile ducts needed to expel waste products and the back up of toxins was slowly poisoning my little body,” explains Melanie.
After the community’s huge fundraising efforts, Donna, Melanie’s father Rob, older sister Nicola and Jared moved to Brisbane to be near the hospital. They waited seven months before a liver donor was found. During the wait, the family met other babies about to have transplants – and all eventually died after surgery.
“I was 15 months old when they finally found a donor for me and it was at a crucial time,” tells Melanie. ”My liver had stopped working – it was bulging out of my stomach. I was at risk of brain and internal haemorrhaging because of the pressure on my body.”
But after surviving the transplant operation, she made a miraculous recovery and was given an 80% survival rate. And she’s been able to lead a normal life, going to school, getting a job and travelling the world.
The Palmerston North resident wouldn’t be alive without the kindness of strangers.
Melanie has read about her struggle as a baby in newspaper articles and sometimes watches snippets of her courageous journey on family home videos. She even featured in the pages of New Zealand Woman's Weekly! Celebrating 25 years with her now not-so-new liver is a huge milestone.
“To mark the occasion, me and 10 of my closest family and friends went out to dinner,“ she says. “It was touching that everyone was so proud of me.”
And there are still more reasons to celebrate Melanie’s remarkable life. There was yet another fight on the horizon for her when she was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 15.
It was discovered she had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, after a lump appeared in her throat.
“From the moment I was born, the odds have been against me,” says Melanie.
“The cancer was particularly hard because I was a teenager and I lost my hair."
After having the lump in her throat removed and undergoing six gruelling courses of chemotherapy, Melanie was eventually cleared of cancer.
As a floristry graduate.
But there has been an upside to all those long days spent in hospital – it inspired her to pursue a career as a florist.
“I’ve received lots of flowers during my lifetime and I know how they can cheer you up,” she tells. “It’s the perfect job!”
As a transplant recipient, Melanie knows how important it is to consider organ donation. An Australian child was her donor and she has tried numerous times to contact his family to express her gratitude, but they have opted not to reply. However, Melanie isn’t deterred, hoping her story will encourage Kiwis to think about organ donation.
“Organ donation gives life to people who are suffering,” she says. “I’ve survived for 25 years and I know others who need organs could also enjoy a longer time on this earth.”
Melanie says she owes everything to all the people who have helped her. “My life has been full of miracles. And those miracles have made me who I am today.”
Organ donation
If you are interested in becoming an organ donor, you can tick 'yes' on your driver’s licence. Organ Donation New Zealand also encourages you to talk with your family to have your wishes be known.
For more information, visit donor.co.nz.

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