Kerikeri’s Nika Van Der Merwe overcame serious health scares and now leads an award-winning pet food business.
Against the odds shares the stories of Northlanders whose lives were overturned by health-related bombshells, but who have continued to battle and thrive.
A Kerikeri woman who overcame a shock diagnosis of kidney failure at just 19 years old has told of the health battles that rocked her world – not once, but twice.
Nika Van der Merwe says she went into a deep depression “sort of slump” when she was diagnosed with end-stage renal failure.
“It was a terrible time in my life. But after the initial shock of it all passed, I changed my thinking, and thought, ‘This condition will live with me – I’m not living with it’.”
Van der Merwe’s parents had brought their 11-year-old daughter and her sister from South Africa to Auckland for a better life.
Her protective parents, both in the police and armed forces, wanted to remove their daughters from their small and violent farming town.
The youngster threw herself into Kiwi life, eventually meeting her former husband as a teen in Orewa.
The couple later moved in together, and Van der Merwe began a labour-hire business in the coastal town.
With the business taking off, they decided the time was right to start a family.
But the moment was bittersweet, as the doctor called her in, telling her she needed to bring a support person.
At 19 years old, a pregnant Van der Merwe was diagnosed with end-stage renal disease (ESRD) – kidney failure requiring dialysis or a transplant.
She was immediately rushed to hospital, her mum at her side, after a blood test revealed her kidneys only had 5 per cent of their normal level of function.
“I demanded they repeat the tests – I just didn’t believe them,” Van der Merwe said,
Medical experts advised her to terminate her pregnancy, as she faced a 60 per cent chance of mortality and a high chance of premature birth.
“The whole ‘ignorance is bliss’ is so true,” Van der Merwe said. “As a 19-year-old, I couldn’t grasp the severity of the situation.”
But she didn’t hold back.
Within the year, Van der Merwe and her boyfriend tied the knot, she studied health sciences, started a successful business, worked part-time, and underwent three months of peritoneal dialysis until her kidney transplant.
“This took incredible self-belief and support to get through at the age of 19,” Van der Merwe said.
Her saving grace, she said, was a lifetime of staying fit and healthy.
Her youth had been spent as a talented swimmer – training twice a day, six days a week as she competed for the Coast Swim Club in Stanmore Bay and at the national championships and Junior Olympics.
She later hung up her swimming cap and successfully tried her hand at dance and athletics.
Two to three months passed before Van der Merwe was fully functional again after her transplant.
But it was “onwards and upwards”, she said.
In 2013 she gave birth to her first child, a daughter, and a year later her son was born.
Her marriage bore a psychological and emotional toll, so Van der Merwe divorced her husband and, with her children, followed her parents to the Far North.
As Van der Merwe rediscovered happiness a year later with her “soulmate” Glen Scott, whom she had met after the move, her health threw her a curveball.
Even though her kidney was fine, she was really sick and losing weight.
“Doctors didn’t know why. I was a mystery,” Van der Merwe said.
She was in and out of hospital to undergo scans, tests – “everything”, she said – in a bid to find out what was wrong.
Finally, following an MRI, a doctor diagnosed her with Crohn’s disease – not a complete shock, as her mother also had the condition.
The disease causes the tissues in a person’s digestive tract to swell, resulting in abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss and malnutrition.
For a second time, Van der Merwe rallied herself.
The hard work she put into her recovery has her back doing strength training and horse riding, playing netball and taking part in pole fitness classes – the list goes on.
“I am still running a business, working full-time, renovating a home and managing four kids, as well as physically doing incredibly well,” Van der Merwe said.
“My health is the best it’s been.”
Van der Merwe said going through those experiences – which included five major surgeries – has made her a more resilient person.
“If it wasn’t for my attitude and positive outlook, that everything happens for a reason, then I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Her mantra: “The only way is through.”