Calls for equal recognition of rongoā Māori in healthcare

12:49 pm on 20 June 2018

A terminally ill woman is calling for greater access to Māori healing methods saying they've helped to keep her alive for years longer than doctors expected.

Tanya Fillia, her daughter Willow-Mina and husband John Fillia

Tanya Fillia, her daughter Willow-Mina and husband John Fillia Photo: RNZ / Leigh-Marama McLachlan

When Tanya Filia was first diagnosed with brain cancer in 2013, she went straight into chemotherapy and radiation treatment at Auckland City Hospital.

"It all happened really, really quickly too because the headaches were really massive and the symptoms were unbearable," she said.

Her daughter Willow-Mina was only three-years-old, and the school principal was struggling to come to terms with potentially leaving her.

"The thought of her growing up without a māmā, yeah was really, really hard. That's been the hardest thing."

After a year of chemotherapy and 42 treatments of radiation, Mrs Filia went into remission. But in 2015, her headaches were back.

The whānau was called into a hui at the hospital but she couldn't face the news.

"I left the room and my parents carried that for me. They were told I have two months to live and that my family needed to prepare that I may not make Christmas," Mrs Filia said.

It was then that Mrs Filia took her chances on rongoā Māori and natural therapies - and she hasn't looked back.

She prays, gets mirimiri or spiritual massages and has bathed in kawakawa.

She drinks herbal teas made especially for her by tohunga matakite or Māori spiritual healers, and she gets intravenous vitamic C.

Filmmaker Jessie McVeagh and her son Kahu.

Filmmaker Jessie McVeagh and her son Kahu. Photo: RNZ / Leigh-Marama McLachlan

Mrs Filia is still alive two-and-half-years later and her friend and filmmaker Jessie McVeagh has documented the whole thing.

"That footage over time of Tanya and her whānau - you can see on screen the change of what she looks like, her energy levels, compared to how she is now," Ms McVeagh said.

The Ministry of Health says it spends $1.9 million a year funding rongoa Māori services around the country, and has recently renewed rongoa funding contracts for 18 Māori health organisations.

But Mrs Filia says that is not enough, it can be hard to come by and it needs to be an option for healthcare.

"No doctor sat down at that time and said look, you can look at natural therapies, you can look at rongoā, your own healing practices. They just offered a chaplain and a hospice phone number.

"I am not telling people not to go and have chemotherapy or radiation, because it worked for me for two years. But there is a right for people to choose."

Cancer Society chief executive Mike Kernaghan says there is merit in taking a holistic approach to treatment, but clinicians' hands are tied.

"They can only ever really provide options that have a strong evidence base and that's the view that the Cancer Society support as well," he said.

"That is taking nothing away from what has transpired."

But University of Auckland researcher Erena Wikaire, who's doing her PhD on rongoa Māori, says there is demand for it, and the health system needs to be more open.

"Rongoā Māori is not necessarily an option that is readily accessible and affordable and if it was participants in my study have said that they would have a preference of using it."

Mrs Filia has a claim in the Waitangi Tribunal's health inquiry calling for equal recognition of rongoā Māori.

The film about her journey, He Oranga Pumau, will be played to MPs at Parliament on Wednesday evening.