By Jodi Bryant
After 11 operations and lengthy hospital stays, Emily Peacock has a fairly sound grasp of the medical world compared to most 12-year-olds. In fact, since being diagnosed with a brain tumour, aged eight, understandably, her life's outlook has changed and she has a nursing career in her sights.
Mum Elle Gurnick recons, with her daughter's caring and positive nature, she'd make a great one.
"She'd love to have a hand in it. I think she'd be fantastic because she is so caring and I guess it's because she can relate."
Adds Emily: "I like helping people and, ever since I got sick, I have always wanted to be a nurse because I understand."
Emily would have empathy in spades for her patients. She was living the life of a normal eight-year-old girl; into her arts and crafts, with a love of the beach, dancing and Justin Bieber when the severe headaches began, followed by the vomiting, double-vision and, later, black-outs. Her concerned parents repeatedly sought professional advice but were only given a viral diagnosis. It wasn't until an optometrist discovered she had pressure on the brain that she was sent to hospital and instantly things sped up; the paediatric team were waiting for her and she was sent for an emergency CT scan before the news was delivered that she had a brain tumour.
"That was just so horrible," recalls Elle. "I was devastated. I burst into tears. It was definitely heart-breaking. All I thought of was I was going to lose my daughter."
Emily, however, handled the news differently.
"She did what she always does – she smiles. She's been through so much. She just keeps smiling regardless of how much pain there is and what she is going through. Although, she had no idea, as an eight-year-old."
Elle, a mother of eight with husband Aaron, recalls being whisked off to Starship Children's Hospital with only her handbag, with the helicopter flying at low altitude due to the pressure on Emily's brain.
"The paramedics asked her on the way if there was a special place in the world she'd like to visit and she said Paris. So, they flew her around the Sky Tower, explaining that it was as close to the Eiffel Tower they could get her, which was really awesome. So, even though she was at her sickest, she was happy."
With both sets of grandparents away, Elle's sister took time off work in the interim to look after the six other youngest kids, then aged between two and 16. Emily's oldest brother was 21.
Emily stayed at Starship 16 days, where her condition rapidly deteriorated, the double-vision rendering her unable to stay upright. She was diagnosed with Hydrocephalus - fluid within the brain producing increased pressure inside the skull. Because of the tumour's proximity to the brain, operating was ruled out so treatment involved inserting a ventriculoperitoneal (VP) shunt system inside her skull to relieve the pressure on the brain caused by the fluid accumulation.
The excess fluid is drained via tubing running down to the stomach to be reabsorbed into the body. However, Emily has since had five shunt revisions, a catheter has snapped off, involving another operation to replace the metre-long tubing, eye surgery to correct the downward pointing of her eyes caused by the pressure, 'and, on top of that, she needed her tonsils removed', finishes Elle.
"She's had no chemo or radiation because the tumour sits in a critical area of the brain and is not growing at the moment, but it could change at any time."
In between surgery, there have been many other traumatic experiences, such as her veins collapsing from overuse for the intravenous line. But, out of all the painful procedures Emily has endured over the last three years, her most loathed was the daily blood tests via her fingers.
"They would prick nearly every finger every day and she said it's like a blade and then you couldn't use your fingers to pick anything up because of the bruising," says Elle.
For a long time, Emily was unable to brush her hair, which became matted because of the 'horrendous neuropathic nerve pain at the back of the skull where the same nerve ending kept getting cut over and over during the surgeries'.
"We ended up cutting her hair off so she didn't have to worry about brushing it," explains Elle.
But it was around this time that Emily experienced what could only be a fantasy for many girls; she met her idol Justin Bieber through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
He was in New Zealand for his March 2017 concert and Emily was lucky enough to be the only child in the country to meet him backstage after his show.
"It was really exciting. I wasn't nervous, just excited," she grins, adding that her teenage sister Katie, who she chose to take along with her mum and dad, was star-struck into silence.
Elle says Emily was 'over the moon'. "She just ran straight up to him and gave him a big hug and he just embraced her like a brother. He was fantastic. He engaged in her conversation and asked her questions and listened and signed a couple of her things."
Adds Emily: "I gave him a tiki and he wore it but he put it on backwards but I saw him on a video afterwards and he was wearing it round the right way."
The experience included three night's accommodation and arriving to the concert in a 'hummerzine', which gained a lot of attention as it rolled down Queen St.
"Everyone thought Justin was in it," grins Emily, sharing a video of her and Katie singing inside the vehicle.
The family had been told to expect less than a minute with the celebrity but, instead he gave them five minutes of his time and one of the items he signed was a framed picture of a tattoo design the men in Emily's family had inked.
For eight months, they secretly worked on getting the design, which includes an anchor as a symbol of the family roots with a VP shunt, a scroll and the lyrics from one of Justin's songs: Tu souris, je souris (You smile, I smile).
Elle explains: "So when she goes to hospital, she will take it with her so she knows they are always with her."
"And, see that pink heart?" Emily points out with a mischievous twinkle. "They have to wear pink on their bodies because it's my favourite colour."
The day they got their tattoos they told the rest of the family they were playing golf.
"I thought, that's strange, they never play golf. They came home and I went to hug Aaron and he flinched from the pain. Then they unveiled them to us and it got a bit emotional.
"We explained the meaning behind the design to Justin and he thought it was absolutely fantastic. He'd never come across anything like it before. The only thing is, he signed the glass and his signature is fast coming off!"
Elle says that, when Emily's siblings are older, they also intend getting the tattoo to show their support.
"They've struggled with all the attention being on Emily," says Elle, who had to leave her three-year-old behind while in Starship and missed her five-year-old's first day of school. "But, in saying that, they're all very caring. They know how unwell she's been and they know that, if it was them, Emily would be just as caring back."
Today, sixteen months after the Bieber encounter, Emily is still riding high on the memory.
"She listens to him all the time. I'd say she's probably one of his true fans but is silently a bit gutted about his recent engagement," laughs Elle. "But, out of all the obstacles that she's gone though, she's had some good come of it, which has made her smile more."
Another person who keeps her smiling is best friend Caitlyn, who Emily met at Northern Health School, where she attends twice a week, in conjunction with Bream Bay College.
Today, Emily's golden hair has grown back, her blue eyes, albeit one on a slight downward angle, sparkle, and the every-present smile is there.
She's been on an array of meds over the years, developing an allergy to morphine, and is finally down to two a day to prevent migraines. Another squint repair operation is on the cards, she has memory loss and fatigue but her outlook has changed.
"She used to sometimes say 'It's not fair, why does it have to happen to me?' but now she's thinking more about doing fun things and she doesn't take things too seriously."
Over the last three years Emily's gone through what most will never endure in their lifetime but she's still the little girl with a love for arts and crafts, making slime, and, of course, Justin Bieber.