Straining to speak under the weight of her own breath, Rizwana Shaikh talked about the fact she was dying only in terms of her children's future.

The Auckland mother-of-two gasped in words, not sentences, over the telephone this week about the Stage 4 terminal ovarian cancer she was diagnosed with in February.

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Her "heartbreak" was reserved not for the pain she was in, or any personal aspirations, but her inability to care any more for her severely disabled daughter Alisha.

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The 3-year-old was born with visual impairment, epilepsy, severe spastic quadriplegia, cerebral palsy and cognitive developmental delays.

As a single mother, caring for Alisha has become her life's devotion, and it is not yet clear who will take up that role when she is gone.

"It is time-consuming, extremely hard work caring for Alisha, but worthwhile. My heart breaks I cannot do it now," Rizwana said.

"I am worried for Alisha. I had goals for her."

Three-year-old Alisha Shaikh lives with a range of severe disabilities and is wheelchair-bound but is described as an extremely affectionate child by all who know her. Photo / Supplied
Three-year-old Alisha Shaikh lives with a range of severe disabilities and is wheelchair-bound but is described as an extremely affectionate child by all who know her. Photo / Supplied

With Rizwana's parents and sister stranded in her hometown of Pune in India, and another sister stuck in Brisbane due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, Rizwana's illness has been one of isolation.

Crying, Rizwana said the separation has been "extremely hard. My mum is beside herself".

Her sister Tabassum Shaikh had been in Auckland, along with her parents, in February following Rizwana's initial cancer diagnosis, but flew out on March 25 aboard the last flight before New Zealand's level 4 lockdown was implemented.

They had thought they would be back soon.

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Two months on, Tabassum said she spends around three hours every day on the phone to the Indian, Australian and New Zealand embassies and immigration, trying to orchestrate a way back for her family to be by Rizwana's side.

"It is just so hard, none of us can get to her. My mother cries every morning because she wants to go to Rizwana in the state she is in," Tabassum said.

"In this situation we have been deprived of just being able to go to her in her last stage."

The Shaikh family are trying to arrange $5000 seats on an Air India chartered flight to New Zealand in early June, but nothing is yet certain.

Rizwana Shaikh, right, and her 3-year-old disabled daughter, Alisha, held by her friend Aminah Khaled, left. Rizwana has terminal ovarian cancer. Photo / Fiona Goodall, Getty Images
Rizwana Shaikh, right, and her 3-year-old disabled daughter, Alisha, held by her friend Aminah Khaled, left. Rizwana has terminal ovarian cancer. Photo / Fiona Goodall, Getty Images

Aside from the pain of family separation now, Rizwana worries for Alisha's future progress and laments she won't be there to see her grow and achieve.

"The doctors were concerned that she would have much more significant delays but through her therapy and all of my efforts she exceeded the experts' expectations," Rizwana said.

"I was doing a lot of therapy with her and I wanted to take her abroad. We were trying different ways of improving the quality of her life.

"There were different milestones I wanted for her: movement and independence. She had just learnt to crawl. She was making good progress."

The main source of support for Rizwana during the past months has been from the mothers of the Muslim playgroup, Baitul Ilm, where her children are minded.

"I am very blessed to have them. They are more than family," Rizwana said.

The group has helped set up a Givealittle page to help fund a night carer for Rizwana as her condition worsens, potential flights for her family to reunite with her, and potentially fund activities Alisha enjoys into the future such as Glow Kids and horse riding.

Chairperson of the Baitul Ilm playgroup, Aminah Khaled, has been by Rizwana's side during the quick descent of her illness.

"Rizwana told me at playgroup 'My dream is that one day I see Alisha standing up and making herself a cup of coffee'," Khaled said.

"This comment touched my heart deeply. Her dreams are all about her children. She devotes all her time to her children and their opportunities."

Rizwana Shaikh with her 5-year-old son Aabir. Photo / Supplied
Rizwana Shaikh with her 5-year-old son Aabir. Photo / Supplied

Tabassum said after immigrating from India in 2011, Rizwana married in New Zealand and continued her career after the birth of her now 5-year-old son Aabir.

"She was working in the IT industry and once in New Zealand she got a job in administration and HR ... She was extremely educated and talented when she came from India."

But soon after Alisha's birth, her parents split.

"When Alisha was born she gave up everything and became a single mother caring for her children selflessly. She is such a hard-working person. I cannot tell you the amount of energy she has put in.

"When Alisha was born she couldn't see, couldn't take a bottle. It was just night and day she put in."

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At the moment, Aabir is being cared for by his father in Auckland.

Alisha is still under the care of her mother with support from her close friends.

Rizwana Shaikh holding her 5-year-old son Aabir and 3-year-old daughter Alisha who has been disabled since birth. Photo / Supplied
Rizwana Shaikh holding her 5-year-old son Aabir and 3-year-old daughter Alisha who has been disabled since birth. Photo / Supplied

Even in her weakened state, Rizwana holds steadfast to this responsibility, and takes solace from the sight of her "cheerful" daughter and her wide brown eyes.

"Alisha is a sweetheart, always smiling and interacting. She goes to everyone for cuddles," she said.

"I just want a better quality of life for them - good education and opportunity.

"I want my children to be loved in the future."

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website