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Casketeers Francis and Kaiora Tipene open up about health scare: 'I was so close to losing him'

Dec 18, 2021

In the first week of December, Francis was rushed to hospital. Photo / Supplied

Losing the love of her life was something Kaiora Tipene wasn't expecting to have to deal with for many years. Yet just a few weeks ago, she was holding her husband Francis' hand as he was wheeled off into an operating room for life-saving surgery.

"I was so scared I was going to lose him and I've never felt that," she tells the Woman's Weekly. "I didn't know who to talk to or who to ring. I was just numb," she recalls.

In the first week of December, Francis was rushed to hospital after he was supposed to be recovering from a simple operation to remove his appendix, giving his family "a hell of a scare".

"It started when Francis had a bit of pain in his stomach, but he didn't do anything about it," says Kaiora. "It turns out he had to be nearly dying before he would agree to go to hospital.

"When we finally got into hospital, the doctor said he had a ruptured appendix and he was rushed into the operating room to have it removed."

Kaiora says her husband was doing well following the operation and decided to discharge himself the next day. He seemed well and she was glad to have him back with his loved ones.

"But within the space of 24 hours of being at home, his stomach started to swell and I was having to change his dressings a lot, which was not good," she says.

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Francis had also removed the drain in his stomach, which was placed there to deal with any post-operative fluid, because he felt so well when he was at home, he didn't think he needed it.

"He quickly became unwell – his stomach was swollen and he had a seizure. I was so scared. He was rushed back to hospital, where he had to have another operation to remove all the fluid," she shares.

While Kaiora is telling this story, she sounds exhausted and emotionally drained from the experience.

"When we went back into hospital, he was lying on the bed coming in and out of consciousness, while the medical staff were explaining all the risks of his surgery. I was so frightened. It was meant to be minor surgery and now he's lying on the bed not having a clue what was going on.

"I was trying to stay positive and happy in front of him before he went through the operating room doors, but then I was alone. I didn't know what to do. I was numb with fear."

The one thing the beautiful, warm and funny Casketeers star Kaiora says to anyone she meets, is to make the most of the time you have with your family because you never know what is around the corner.

"It's usually me telling everyone to enjoy the moments with your loved ones," she tells. "It's different when you have to take advice from your own leaflet.

"I prayed for him to come back to me and I'm so blessed he's still with us."

Thankfully, the second surgery was successful and three days later, as Kaiora is talking to the Weekly, she says his colour is coming back and he's started getting a bit demanding. Which, she says, is very good news. In fact, she has just taken Francis out of hospital for one hour to see their kids at a local park.

"He was missing the kids so much that the doctor gave us a pass – but just for one hour. We could leave, but he gave us a time to get back and we made sure we followed the rules," she says.

Kaiora and Francis, both 38, have five sons, Nikora, 16, Moronai, 14, Mikae, 8, Mihaka, 7, and Francis jnr, 3, who also had a huge fright seeing their dad so ill.

Francis Tipene was rushed to hospital a few weeks ago after his appendix ruptured. Photo / Supplied Francis Tipene was rushed to hospital a few weeks ago after his appendix ruptured. Photo / Supplied

"Francis is listening to the doctors now and realising that he nearly killed himself by ignoring their advice."

But he's still not happy being in hospital.

"I took him down to the café in the hospital for a change of scene," she tells. "He was so excited, he was talking to everyone, waving out to strangers and saying, 'Hi, my name is Francis,' then he insisted on buying five copies of a magazine which had a story about me in it and handing them out to the nursing staff, telling them to read the story!"

Francis also asked Kaiora to bring in some sheets from home as the hospital linen was freaking him out.

"He felt like he was a tūpāpaku [body of a deceased person] in them," she explains. "Because of our job, we often go and pick up bodies in those sheets."

Sadly, while Francis was in hospital, a close uncle of the family died in Northland. It was going to be Francis' job to go up and get him, and bring him back to the funeral home for his tangi.

Kairoa says, "Francis had promised he would go and get Uncle Pio, but he was in hospital so he couldn't do it, which was really sad.

"So, we had to rely on our kaimahi [their staff at the funeral home] to do all of that for us. They went north and brought him back down."

Kaiora says their whānau understood and she was there to dress Uncle Pio at the funeral home. And when the service took place, she had Francis on FaceTime from the hospital for the karakia.

"The whānau was so moved by the whole thing," she says. "I'd never done that before, having my husband next to me on FaceTime, but at least they could feel his presence there."

Kaiora and Francis, both 38, have five sons, Nikora, 16, Moronai, 14, Mikae, 8, Mihaka, 7, and Francis jnr, 3. Photo / Supplied Kaiora and Francis, both 38, have five sons, Nikora, 16, Moronai, 14, Mikae, 8, Mihaka, 7, and Francis jnr, 3. Photo / Supplied

Running a funeral business during the lockdowns Auckland faced this year has been challenging for Kaiora and Francis, especially when it came to getting their staff vaccinated. Funeral home workers are considered an essential service, but the Government did not make it mandatory for funeral home workers to be vaccinated.

"We felt that this was needed for our families because a lot of us have vulnerable members in our household," tells Kaiora. "Most of our staff were happy to do it, except two members who had both been raised in families who did not get vaccinated.

"So we didn't challenge them at all, and told them it was at their own discretion and we weren't going to force them."

Finally, both made the decision to get double vaxxed, which meant the entire workforce at Tipene's Funerals is now fully vaccinated against Covid.

"They told me it was for their whānau, because they had nanas and koros in their families and they just wanted to keep them safe. So they felt the push from their own immediate family, and I was just grateful it was from them and not from us at work."

Once Francis is better, the close-knit family will be heading north, another decision that has required long, hard thought, as Northland has low vaccination rates compared to the rest of the country, particularly in the Māori community.

"Our home is in Pawarenga [in the Hokianga]. It's where my siblings are and where our nana is. It's our turangawaewae and we miss home," admits Kaiora.

"Our family miss us too, so we will be going north, but we will stay with our whānau and not go anywhere else. There's a paddock outside Nan's house and a paddock outside my sister's house, so we can keep to our space and the beach is right there."

Kaiora says they haven't seen their family for six months and the kids missed out on visiting for the school holidays and Labour Weekend.

The pair are best known for their popular TVNZ series The Casketeers about their lives as funeral directors. Photo / Supplied The pair are best known for their popular TVNZ series The Casketeers about their lives as funeral directors. Photo / Supplied

"It's important for us to get back to all those natural elements," she tells.

Fans of the popular TVNZ series Casketeers, which follows the life of Kaiora and Francis' business, will be pleased to hear that they have also been busy filming the fifth season when Covid restrictions have allowed. It also looks like a sixth season will happen too.

The warm-hearted and funny couple have been credited with helping many Kiwis embrace and learn Māori traditions and language.

Kaiora says the business has been doing well, including their new Wellington branch, which opened this year.

"We are so grateful for the kaimahi we have there because they've had to do a lot on their own while we were stuck in Auckland, but they've navigated it all really well.

"During level 4, they were so tired and needed some days off, so we went down and when we got off the plane, it was so nice to see people. Holy heck, we were just saying hello to anybody and asking how they were, and cafés were open," she laughs.

"Francis was heading off to work, but I was straight into the café to check they were actually open and to order my first mocha in months!"

As the Tipene clan get organised for Christmas and plan to see their family and friends, Kaiora says she will be making the most of every moment with Francis.

"I nearly lost the love of my life and if there was one thing I learned, it is not to take for granted the moment you have with your mate and to cherish what you can," she says.

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