International Women's Day: MP Carmel Sepuloni's health scare warning to women

Author
Kirsty Johnston, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 8 Mar 2020, 9:24AM
Carmel Sepuloni ignored an ectopic pregnancy for months. (Photo / NZ Herald)
Carmel Sepuloni ignored an ectopic pregnancy for months. (Photo / NZ Herald)

International Women's Day: MP Carmel Sepuloni's health scare warning to women

Author
Kirsty Johnston, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 8 Mar 2020, 9:24AM

For months, welfare minister Carmel Sepuloni knew she was sick, and ignored it.

She ignored the pain in her abdomen and ignored it when she felt nauseous. She ignored a fever for so long she fainted in her mother-in-law's garage, desperate for no one to know she was unwell.

"I kept self-diagnosing and telling my doctor what I thought it was and demanding medicine for things I thought I had, which is not good," says Sepuloni, 43.

"Even when I collapsed I tried to do it quietly. My husband wanted me to tell his aunty who was upstairs because she's a nurse but I wouldn't let him. He wanted to ring an ambulance but I wouldn't let him do that."

Despite the obvious indication something was wrong, Sepuloni still didn't act. With a trip to the United Nations convention in New York just two days away, she refused to submit to blood tests, instead saying she'd do them when she got home.

The Labour MP for Kelston cries as she describes taking flight after flight during that time in June last year, and - in hindsight - how dangerous it could have been.

"The scary thought for me is ... I really could have died on one of those flights and I could have done it quite silently, probably, given how I responded to the symptoms before that," she says.

Labour MP for Kelston and Cabinet Minister Carmel Sepuloni said her ectopic pregnancy was a wake-up call to look after her health. Photo / Peter Meecham

Labour MP for Kelston and Cabinet Minister Carmel Sepuloni said her ectopic pregnancy was a wake-up call to look after her health. Photo / Peter Meecham

On arriving home, Sepuloni finally did the tests. A few days later she was rushed for an ultrasound, and then to the hospital.

It was discovered she had an ectopic pregnancy, with the foetus growing outside her womb.

Surgeons had to remove her whole fallopian tube. They repeatedly told Sepuloni - a mother and step-mother to four boys - that she was extremely lucky and it could have ruptured any time.

"I couldn't even sleep when we were at the hospital. I was just thinking, 'how did this happen?'" she says.

"There were so many things going through both our minds. That we were pregnant and didn't know, that we'd lost a child, I'd been at risk for such a long time and had no idea, and I was feeling quite stupid for ignoring all the health issues."

Husband Daren Kamali said it was also a wake-up call for him.

"I was feeling guilty as well because if anything had happened to her I wouldn't have been able to forgive myself."

Today - for International Women's Day - the pair decided to tell Sepuloni's story as a warning to other women to take health concerns seriously.

"Women, in particular busy women, feel a need to put on a front and to be strong for the rest of the family and not show weakness in the workplace," Sepuloni says.

"We don't like other people having to pick up for us because we're not able to pull our own weight. We will keep going and that can be a risk for us."

She says while working in Parliament did add stress - for example, she nearly missed her radiology appointment to attend caucus - the issue wasn't specific to any one job.

"All women know it ... you want to be at the top of your game in everything you're doing and everything you commit to and we're always cognisant of the fact that we have to work just a little bit harder," she says.

"But I'd just say, we are all only human. I know we think we can do everything - and we should give it a good shot - but that doesn't mean we should deprioritise ourselves and our health in the process. Because we aren't any good to anyone if we're not here."

After her surgery, Sepuloni took two weeks off. It was hard for her - both coming to terms with the fact it might have been her only chance to have a baby with Kamali, and having to deal with the boredom of being at home.

"I was doing ridiculous things like sorting the boys' socks. I found 27 pairs. I was obsessed to the point I was texting Daren's son's mother - did she have any odd socks at home that she could bring over," she says. "But it was therapeutic."

She says her colleagues - including Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern - were supportive and understanding. At first, she didn't want to tell anyone, but now realises she can be a lesson to others.

"The message has to be - put your health first, keep asking questions, don't self-diagnose and if things don't seem right, keep exploring."