Len Brown was 19 when his mother Ngaire died, aged 47, of a coronary thrombosis - a heart attack resulting from obstructed coronary arteries.

His sister woke him with the news his mother was lying on the kitchen floor but nothing could be done.

"I remember we had argued and I had gone out that night.

"It was just a stupid thing - a 19-year-old challenging his mother. I look back at that with real sadness.

"[Her death] just broke Dad up. It was a huge blow to the community - she was mother to the neighbourhood."

Len's younger brother Greg was just six.

Older sisters Sue and Jillian pitched in with the housework while their father raised Greg.

Tragedy struck again when Greg, aged 28 and living in London, was run down by a police van on its way to a pub brawl.

The van had its lights flashing but the siren wasn't on; Greg was crossing the road and didn't see it until too late.

When, two years ago, Brown collapsed on stage at the Pacific Events Centre it seemed a third premature death was to descend on the family.

Brown's wife Shan and sisters Shirley and Jo virtually camped at the hospital as he fought for life, surviving several setbacks.

He needed a double triple bypass to replace six blocked arteries but suffered several setbacks.

At one point family friend Father Terry Dibble was called to deliver the last rites when one of the grafts perforated. But after further surgery Brown slowly regained strength.

Brown maintains the heart attack was congenital; that he inherited a susceptibility to heart disease. But lifestyle also played a part, says Middlemore cardiologist Andrew Kerr, who spoke to the Herald with Brown's consent.

Risk factors included Brown's high cholesterol and less-than ideal diet and physical fitness. His high pressure lifestyle exacerbated these risks.

Since his recovery, Brown has changed his diet and become a regular gymgoer and walker, and is now a poster boy for men's heart health.

Kerr says as long as Brown maintains his diet and physical fitness, he is up to the pressures of political life. "I think he's someone who thrives on having things to do. He's quite a dynamo."

A year after he returned to work, Brown outlined his intention to seek the single city mayoralty.

"I suppose we did think he was mad but only through fear," sister Shirley says. "He thinks he's up to it so that's okay."

Brown's immediate family took the same attitude. Shan and the girls talked it through and decided there was no holding him back.

"That's my Dad," Olivia, 13, told the Dominion-Post at the time.

"That's what he's always done."