Wellington cancer teen Jemima Gazley wins NZ Herald 2021 Our Heroes award for selfless campaign

“You can’t have a heroine without a tragedy,” says Ray Gazley, seven weeks after the death of her daughter Jemima.

“And without this disease we never would have met this person.”

Wellington teenager Jemima Gazley is the New Zealand Herald’s 2021 Our Heroes award winner for her selfless campaign for research and funding into brain cancer, in the final weeks she was succumbing to the disease.

Raising more than successive New Zealand governments have invested in brain cancer across her lifetime, she also donated her own brain tumours to researchers in the hope of carving an easier path for the next child given the death sentence of DIPG.

Herald editors unanimously picked her from a strong line-up of candidates, featured below.

But Jemima Gazley herself would find the award “very curious” – especially as she began the year as a regular, healthy teenage girl.

“She was humble without even knowing what the word humble meant,” said Ray.

In her family Jemima brought the laughs and “lifted everyone’s game”. But a shock diagnosis of terminal cancer at 14 was the spark that ignited Jemima’s full enlightenment.

She was not defined by cancer. But her response to it was “mind-blowing”.

“It was this enlightenment that all of a sudden came on … she just evolved,” said her dad Oliver.

“She just handled it so well. To be able to do that with that diagnosis … it was fierce.”

Ray likes to think the diagnosis catapulted Jemima and the Gazleys out of the matrix, freed from the shackles of trivial stresses and the judgments of others.

“I think it is a gift of the brain that happens when you get told you’re terminally ill, you go ‘Oh none of that matters, I don’t have to pedal to get the thing, to do the thing, to be the thing.’

“I’m very aware that the person I met was the fully evolved version of Jemima … and what a privilege it was to meet her.”

In the eight months before her death on October 12, Jemima taught her family how to live.

From reaching her goal of skiing one final time, to boldly confronting anti-abortionists outside the hospital after cancer treatment, Jemima carried her terminal burden lightly while living fiercely.

“She would always use humour to knock people back from worrying about the small things in life,” said Oliver.

“‘Get over it, I’m the one that’s got a hitchhiker in my head’ – that was her humour that she brought to the table.”

“As time went on you realise that she was accepting of her fate, and that was bravery to me. At times it was like ‘how does she get out of bed in the morning?'”

It was Jem’s decision to have a celebration of life party – with a place for guests to cry in the corner – in the weeks before her death.

She described herself as “healthy as a horse” to the Herald five days before she died. Later that week she dyed her hair pink and dragged her family out for her favourite dinner, even though she was paralysed and in a wheelchair. When the food made her immediately sick, she remarked that it was “just like the bathroom scene in Bridesmaids”.

Jem’s humour and grace in the face of “kaput” – as she would call it – was already heroic. But an offhand decision to go public with their story propelled the teenager into the national spotlight, and gave her the recognition she deserved as her life came to its end.

When friends and family asked how they could help, Jemima suggested a Givealittle page, with proceeds going to Australian researcher Matt Dun, who has been fighting for a cure for DIPG (diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma) since his own daughter died of the disease in 2018.

The page quickly snowballed, raising $200,000 within the first four days.

While it was no surprise the warm, funny Jem could make 7000 friends in a week, after keeping the diagnosis mostly quiet, the fundraising had made her feel visible, knowing she would not simply slip out of existence, as so many cancer sufferers do.

The support and kind words provided a parallel narrative that tempered some of the pain of Jem’s final days.

Perhaps a more remarkable and deliberate act of heroism was Jemima’s donation of her brain tumours, about which the 15-year-old calmly texted Dr Matt Dun in Newcastle.

“She said early, early on ‘if they can’t take it out when I’m alive, they can take it out when I’m dead,” said Ray.

“To make a posthumous plan for your brain to live forever in a lab in an immortalised cell line – I think that’s quite challenging.”

While the Auckland brain bank was in lockdown, 800 emails were sent in three days communicating on processes that had never been done in Wellington, to ensure Jemima’s final wish was granted.

Last month the final total of $696,420 arrived in Newcastle – helped with private donations, and auctions from football team Wellington Phoenix and Wellington Paranormal.

It will be used to create a “Wish Laboratory” to house equipment that will increase the throughput of drug screening by 30 times.

Dun said Jemima’s contribution would make a real difference to kids diagnosed with DIPG.

“It’s so disappointing to miss out on what she would have provided the world, but in the absence of a life long-lived, in a short time she’s changing the face of treatment for kids diagnosed with brain cancer.”

“The long-lasting reward for her and her family is knowing one day she will provide part of the clues that will unlock this disease and lead to kids living long and healthy lives.”

Ray and Oliver now continue the work Jemima started, with ongoing awareness and fundraising efforts through Jemima’s Wish an incorporated charitable trust, which launched yesterday. They continue to back Dun.

“This is one of the big unknown paediatric cancers. They’re hoping if they can crack this one it will have a trickle down to a lot of others,” said Ray.

“I would love to see it in my lifetime.”

Jem’s request was to be remembered as “cured and free”, but her parents remember their daughter as many things: A netballer, a skiier, a comedian, an aspiring Parisienne baker, a thrift shopper. A champion of the unseen and the marginalised. A warrior who greeted death with the remark that she was “off to meet the final boss”. Mostly, they remember her as their best friend.

Today, in New Zealand, Jemima Gazley is remembered as a hero.

The top 10

There were many other great candidates for the Herald’s Our Heroes award this year. Here are the other finalists who made our top 10.

Steve Samuels

For speaking the truth

When James Hamiora was killed in a car crash, police charged the other vehicle’s 21-year-old driver with actions that caused his death.

But Steve Samuels, Hamiora’s dad and uncle to the driver of the car in which Hamiora died in 2018, was intent on setting the record straight.

In October, a court judgement found the driver of the latter car was likely the one at fault, rather than the young American at the wheel of the campervan. Indeed, a former police detective identified the driver, 24-year-old Yvarn Tepania, as having been in the grip of methamphetamine addiction and suicidal in the months before his death.

Samuels approached police to provide information about Tepania’s state of mind ahead of the fatal crash. When police didn’t respond, Samuels told the defence he believed a mistake had been made: his nephew had deliberately driven into the campervan’s oncoming path.

Police were ordered to pay $30,000 legal costs to the tourist originally charged with aggravated careless driving causing death and injury.

Lyall Thurston

For playing the long game

In 1983, Lyall Thurston was told his baby son would only live 24 hours. Simon was born with spina bifida, a condition that affects about one in every 1000 New Zealand pregnancies.

Now a successful university-educated professional, Simon proved the doctors wrong. His Rotorua-based dad has spent the past 40 years advocating for folic acid to be mandatorily added to bread-making flour, to help prevent the neural tube defects which Simon has.

In July, the Government announced exactly this move for non-organic wheat flour, starting in mid-late 2023.

The policy is expected to prevent between 162-240 neural tube defects over 30 years, saving the taxpayer between $25 and $47 million in health, education and productivity costs.

Despite the triumph, Thurston was less focused on taking the credit in an interview with reporter Felix Desmarais, instead recalling four decades of trials, tribulations and exhaustive data-trawling.

It was shortly after Simon was born that his dad learnt about a lack of folate’s effect on developing embryos.

“That’s when I started pushing for it.”

India Logan-Riley

For telling it like it is

COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference that ended last month, opened with some unforgettable words from a young Māori activist:

“Two-hundred-fifty-two years ago invading forces sent by the ancestors of this presidency arrived at my ancestors’ territories, heralding an age of violence, murder and destruction,” India Logan-Riley told world leaders in Glasgow.

“Land in my region was stolen by the British Crown in order to extract oil and suck the land of all its nutrients while seeking to displace people.

“These historic forces continue to shape my life and have brought me here.”

The 26-year-old was a voice of the indigenous next generation who will live with the effects of decisions leaders make today.

“I cannot put it more simply than we know what we are doing, and if you are not willing to back us or let us lead, than you are complicit in the death and destruction that’s happening across the globe. Land back, oceans back.”

“This is an invitation to you. This COP, learn our histories, listen to our stories, honour our knowledge and get in line, or get out of the way.”

The conference ended with 151 countries submitting new plans to cut emissions by 2030.

Michal Garvey

For a creative solution to food waste

More than 50,000 kilograms of carbon emissions, cut with an app.

That’s what Auckland University alumni Michal Garvey’s Foodprint has achieved so far.

The app, used by 400 Auckland businesses as well as an increasing number in the Wellington region, allows customers to search for discounted food on offer from eateries who’d otherwise bin it at the end of the day.

“It might be something left over at the end of a shift, something from a cancelled catering order or made in error and you can purchase on the app and then it is put aside for you to collect,” Garvey said.

“We live in a time where technology can provide us with solutions to change our damaging habits.”

In this year’s level 3 lockdown, Foodprint provided much-needed relief to Kiwi businesses struggling to forecast demand as would-be customers worked from home.

“We have had great feedback from eateries because if they have excess food, they can still make some profit and don’t have the guilt of it being wasted.”

Rodney Khan

For taking on a terrorist

When a knife-wielding man rampaged through a West Auckland supermarket in September, Rodney Khan did not turn away.

“I couldn’t run away from that,” he told TVNZ’s Sunday programme. “I had to go and do something because that’s someone’s mother, someone’s grandmother. I just couldn’t bear it.”

“I yelled out at him, which made him stop stabbing the lady. He turned around and looked at me and that’s when I threw the two cans which I had in my hand.

Khan dislocated his shoulder but managed to escape. Ahamed Samsudeen, a Sri Lankan refugee with Isis sympathies, stabbed five shoppers and injured three others in the LynnMall Countdown before being shot dead by police.

Detective Superintendent Tim Anderson said: “We have no doubt that Rodney’s actions on that day prevented further injury to others and while he is very humble about what he did, his actions were nothing short of heroic.

Hone Martin and Rachel Kearney

For doing the mahi

Locked-down but not out, Hone Martin and his partner Rachel Kearney set an example for the rest of us in level 4, by delivering 1000 home-cooked meals to local kaumātua.

The Northland couple, who run the charity One Whānau at a Time, sourced food, had friends and whānau help prepare meals, and made contactless deliveries from Ahipara to Taipa. Roast pork, lasagne, beef stir-fry and soup were among the dishes served up.

Martin (Ngāpuhi, Te Atiawa, Tainui), known in the Far North as Papa Hone, pivoted in level 2, returning the care of kaumātua to their own whānau.

But he and Kearney kept feeding the masses: one night in September, the street outside Papa Hone’s Koha Shed became a temporary contactless drive-thru with free fish meals on the menu.

“It was amazing,” he said at the time. “The community came together and we got it done.”

Riley Drummond

For quick thinking

A 7-year-old who saved his sister from drowning prevented a parent’s worst nightmare.

In April, Riley Drummond was with his mum, dad and younger sister Ella at a public swimming complex in Marlborough.

Riley’s mum had gone to get changed, and somehow Ella ended up motionless at the bottom of the deep end.

“I… walked around the corner to see Riley coming out of the pool holding Ella flopped in his arms, yelling to Dad for help,” said Mel Drummond.

Recognising his 5-year-old sister was in danger, Riley had swam down, grabbed her by the foot, pulled her to the shallow end and carried her onto dry land.

The kids’ dad Pete performed CPR, assisted by off-duty nurses who happened to be present.

Riley was presented with an ASB Super Saver Bravery Award during an assembly at Waikawa Bay School in May.

His sister has fully recovered.

Simon Craggs

For continued improvement in all subjects

When Simon Craggs inherited the principalship of Papakura High School, he knew he’d be standing on the shoulders of a giant.

Appointed in 2016, his predecessor John Rohs has been credited with transforming the school’s grim performance. At the time, its roll had plunged from 1300 to just 550 as students fled, mostly across the train tracks to Rosehill College.The Education Review Office had warned in 2015 there were “deep-seated issues” stopping progress at all levels of the decile 1 school.

This year, the school which was the subject of the 2017 Herald documentary Under the Bridge, was taken out of statutory management.

New principal Craggs told the Herald the news was a huge deal and it was an emotional time for staff.

“He [Rohs] knew that the school didn’t really reflect the demographic of the students in it. At that point it was nearly 70 per cent Māori but the houses were named after Pākehā generals – all those sorts of things.”

On arrival in the role at the start of 2020, Craggs was struck by the positive energy in the staffroom.

There was far more diversity than five years ago, and teachers took an individual approach to each student – “looking at their needs rather than them just turning up to classes”.

The school roll has climbed to 900. More than 1000 are expected next year.

James McLaren

For paying attention

By stopping to check on an unconscious man he presumed was drunk, James McLaren probably saved a life this year.

The 27-year-old chef found Porter Lightfoot face down in Wellington’s Aro Park early one morning in July.

Lightfoot wasn’t drunk: he’d had an epileptic seizure.

McLaren helped the 24-year-old – who’d also broken his shoulder – walk a short distance, until he could walk no further. McLaren carried Lightfoot the rest of the way to his own house, called 111, and kept Lightfoot talking while waiting for an ambulance.

“I just did what I would want someone else to do for me,” McLaren said.

It wasn’t McLaren’s first brush with potentially deadly seizures. A few months earlier, he’d found a staff member having an episode, who later died.

Lightfoot’s mum Debra Blackett tracked McLaren down through the Vic Deals Facebook page, writing:

“You prob saved his life – so lucky he was found. I would really like to reach out and thank you. If not please know how much aroha our family has for you.”

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