Ngaroma Grant isn't scared of dying.

She's scared of leaving things unfinished for the next generation.

The renowned Māori health leader - affectionately known as Mala - has been battling cancer, and she spoke to the Rotorua Daily Post, in between bites of Jelly Tip ice cream, last weekend.

She sat at the dining table answering questions with help from friends Cathy Cooney and Mary Smith.


Her various tā moko wrapped around her limbs resting on her wheelchair and her rosy painted nails matched the red layer of her slowly melting treat.

"The morphine makes me forget," she said outright, but she had bursts of clear thought, repeating questions back to herself and answering them in complete sentences.

"In terms of my career, nursing, which I have been involved with since I left high school, has been the love of my life," she said first.

"People require time and respect ... they can be a part of your life as well."

Ngaroma starting training in Rotorua in 1973, was registered in 1976 and later did a short stint overseas.

It was clear to her from then on, there was nothing as satisfying as serving her "own people" - Te Arawa.

Tikanga Māori "totally shaped" her work.

"I see it in the photos of the people around me here. There is symbolism, you know, of birds having their wings lifted by the past, by history."


But she sometimes found "apathy" hindered patients' progress.

"When Māori are apathetic towards their health - that's really a vicious cycle to break ... Long-term conditions or liking sugary stuff, cigarette smoking, all sorts of things."

She hoped an increasing number of whānau would be motivated to look after their hauora.

Ngaroma has been best known for her leadership of Te Arawa Whānau Ora in the past decade.

Ngaroma Grant at Rotorua Hospital in 2007. Photo / File
Ngaroma Grant at Rotorua Hospital in 2007. Photo / File

It is a collective of six Māori health and social service providers Ngaroma refers to as "a new way of viewing the health system – it takes a te ao Māori approach".

"It has allowed for Māori to exceed and excel in a space where they are equal to or as good as other cultures. And that's what I really love."

Her previous roles included leading Korowai Aroha Health Centre, Māori health services at the Lakes District Health Board and public health at Tūwharetoa Ki Kawerau Health Services.

Her 2018 CV, passed on by her friends, starts with Ngaroma's mihi.

It lists her connections to Ngāti Pikiao hapū Ngāti Hinerangi and Te Takinga at Lake Rotoiti, and Matawahaura, her mountain.

It also includes many of the roles she juggled alongside her leadership at Te Arawa Whānau Ora - as chair of Healthy Families Rotorua, deputy chair of the national Family Violence Death Review Committee, a member of the Midland Child Mortality Review Committee, an adviser to Toi Ohomai's nursing school, chairwoman of the New Zealand Institute of Health Management's Lakes branch and long-serving member of the national council, a member of the Hinemoa Māori Women's Health Welfare League, and last but not least, as a "nanny to the mokopuna in our whānau and mum and aunty to some great kids".

It also mentions her MBA from the University of Waikato focused on Māori leadership, and the highly esteemed Australasian College of Health Service Management fellowship she was later awarded.

The accolades have continued to flow since this CV was made.

Last month Ngaroma was awarded a top honour in New Zealand health management, the Silver Fern award.

From left, Ngaroma Grant with Korowai Aroha staff Booboo Shaw, Deena Mear and Bena Putaranui in 2010. Photo / File
From left, Ngaroma Grant with Korowai Aroha staff Booboo Shaw, Deena Mear and Bena Putaranui in 2010. Photo / File

It is given out only some years, if a nomination reaches the elite standard, and Ngaroma's nomination prepared by her colleagues in secret was given the seal of approval and the Silver Fern was awarded to her at a special ceremony at Tāheke Marae on Christmas Eve.

Ngaroma said she was proud of her "academic achievements" but being her humble self, she wouldn't go into much detail.

So Cathy Cooney, former Lakes DHB chief executive, stepped in.

"She studied for many years, motivated by wanting to be always up with the play with where the world's going ... always wanting the best for her people. Often she says whānau have aspirations and Whānau Ora helps support them to achieve those aspirations."

Te Arawa Whānau Ora chief executive Ngaroma Grant, left, with colleague Hariata Vercoe in 2012. Photo / File
Te Arawa Whānau Ora chief executive Ngaroma Grant, left, with colleague Hariata Vercoe in 2012. Photo / File

Ngaroma nodded and smiled.

"People always recognise Mala's leadership skills both with all the learning she's done and experience she has but mostly because of the remarkable person she intrinsically is."

Cooney said there had been "courageous leadership" behind Te Arawa Whānau Ora.

Mary Smith, who worked alongside both Ngaroma and Cathy Cooney in leadership roles at the DHB, said Ngaroma always said: "Dreams alone are not enough."

"Through your skill and determination you were able to make many of those dreams happen that up until then hadn't been able to be translated from the visionary stage to the enactment stage," she said across the table.

Other leadership roles Ngaroma has held, that simply wouldn't fit on her CV, are those with iwi trusts and as deputy chair of Te Tatau o Te Arawa.

"I think that's important for us as Māori ... That our world is much more inclusive, rather than exclusive of each other. I don't just talk about what we want for our generation right now but what we want for our world together as partners," she explained.

She said Te Tatau o Te Arawa's work was being led by "some very wise men and women" steered by chairman Te Taru White.

It is cruel to know Ngaroma has done so much to make others happy and well, and has lived "a very, very fit life of athleticism and waka ama" but has become so sick so rapidly.

Ngaroma Grant in 2007 when she worked for the Lakes District Health Board. Photo / File
Ngaroma Grant in 2007 when she worked for the Lakes District Health Board. Photo / File

She won medals at the Waka Ama World Championships in 2018 in Tahiti, and this time last year was winning medals at the New Zealand nationals.

This month her Ruamata teammates took her out for a paddle near Ōkere Falls.

It hurts her three children and two grandchildren especially, knowing experiences like these will be her last.

"My kids are all big now ... Does it make things easier? No, not really, 'cause you love your mum and your kids at the same rate."

In between her regular rests, she takes enjoyment from all she can.

"Looking out on a day like this, I'm thinking, how could you want anything more than a day like today?"