A retired Queanbeyan teacher, instrumental in organising life-saving surgery for a Vanuatu man, explains how the epic experience changed her life.
QUEANBEYAN’S Kate Holder knows what it’s like to live out of a suitcase. The retired teacher and avid traveller spent most of last year living away from home, on a quest to help Vanuatu man Jilifi Neifata, conquer a facial tumour that was slowly taking his life.
The 32-year-old father of three had a slim chance of beating the huge growth that engulfed his face – until Holder and her son Robert Williams, with the help of a prominent SA surgeon and a legion of generous supporters gave him a second chance at life.
“It’s an incredible story,” Holder said.
“It took two long years to make it happen, but I’d do it all over again if I had to because it was an amazing journey.”
Holder, 60, spent much of last year in Adelaide where Neifata underwent major surgery to remove the tumour and reconstruct his disfigured face – a procedure easily done in Australia, but not possible in Vanuatu.
Bringing Neifata and his family to SA for surgery wasn’t easy but Holder, who welcomed her 20th grandchild this year, was “determined” to help the young father who developed the rare tumour 13 years ago.
“We became like family, and with family you do anything for them,” Holder said.
“I live in a big Aboriginal family here; people come and go, and we have a big extended Aboriginal community in Queanbeyan, so family is important to me.”
Neifata, his wife Nai, and children Miriam, 13, Jethro, 9 and Annette (Netty), 5, live on the island of Futuna. With a population of just 500, the remote island is not on the tourist map.
It’s a primitive existence, Holder says, with no electricity and limited services, meaning people with severe medical conditions such as Neifata’s do not normally survive.
Holder’s son, Robert, a Namadgi-Ngunnawal man, was researching for his archaeology PhD on the island, when he met Neifata and became his friend.
“During Rob’s research trip he was wholeheartedly embraced by Jilifi and the people of the island, they adopted him like a member of their family,” Holder said.
“When he came home, he said: ‘Mum, Jilifi has a growing tumour on his face, surely we should try to do something’, and I thought what could we do?
“So, I decided to visit Futuna and meet Jilifi and his family… and I did.”
She told Jilifi that if he really wanted to come to Australia she would do something… and he said “yes”.
With Holder’s help, Neifata made the 3500-kilometre journey to Adelaide to undergo surgery because Vanuatu lacks the medical expertise necessary for such an operation.
If left untreated, Neifata’s slow-growing tumour would have been fatal.
“The tumour was getting bigger; it was heavy and uncomfortable,” said Holder.
“Jilifi didn’t want to leave his house and he was suffering from bad headaches… we later found out he had less than a year to live.”
The 21-hour, $100,000 procedure to remove the 825-gram tumour and reconstruct Neifata’s face was conducted at Adelaide’s Ashford Hospital.
The surgery saved his life.
Dr Andrew Cheng, a South Australian oral and maxillofacial surgeon, performed the operation for free, one of several pro bono cases the prestigious doctor undertakes regularly.
“Everything just seemed to fall into place at the right time,” Holder explained.
“I wrote email after email trying to find a surgeon to help, and Dr Cheng answered within a week.
“He said: “If you can get Jilifi here, he will be my pro bono case for 2019′.
“Getting Jilifi here was huge, and Dr Cheng doubted we could do it in a sense, because someone from Vanuatu had tried to get here previously and they had their visa denied, so it was very hard.
“Jilifi and his family didn’t have identities as such so we had to organise passports and visas and a medical visa… it was a huge team effort, and we did it.”
People from all over the world chipped in to help, raising $3000 through Holder’s GoFundMe page.
A long list of charities and organisations also jumped on board including Walk on Water, the Cancer Council Lodge and Capital Travel Manuka.
Dr Cheng was assisted by hospital staff, nurses, anaesthetist Dr Peter Devonish and surgeons Dr Kim Tsao, and Dr Paul Duke, who came out of retirement to help, each donating their time and expertise.
St Matthew’s Church in Karabar, covered almost six months of accommodation costs for Neifata in Adelaide and the Queanbeyan Lions Club paid for flights and donated money.
“Kate approached us and said can you do anything to help,” said Queanbeyan Lions Club president Max Carrick.
“We felt we could help and so that’s what we set out to do.
“We played a small part in saving Jilifi’s life. It was such a great result. I don’t believe Kate has received the recognition she should have, she’s incredible.
“It was such a fantastic outcome.”
The epic undertaking wasn’t without its complications, Holder admitted.
“The surgery went well in that it saved his life, they were one membrane away from invading the brain, which meant it would have been inoperable, but thankfully it was taken out and it was benign which was amazing,” said Holder.
“But the graft failed so he had to go back into ICU and surgery so that extended it all and cosmetically he had a drooping eye so Dr Cheng wasn’t happy with that and he wanted Jilifi to look the best he could so another surgery was arranged.
“His eye doesn’t work amazingly now, he will need to wear an eye patch for some time, but it might improve… the most important thing is he has his life.”
A life Neifata plans to make the most of, Holder says. Once waiting to die on a remote island in Vanuatu, Neifata now has every reason to live.
“Jilifi told me his dream came true,” Holder smiled.
“It’s been an epic and life-changing experience for everyone.”