Papua New Guinea boy saved by Auckland surgeon, now dreams to become a doctor

At age 14, he was expected to die in Papua New Guinea. Instead, an Auckland surgeon operated to save his life when no one else could. Kevin Tavir shares his story of hope with the Weekend Herald.

Kevin Tavir lay on a concrete veranda, severely ill, for six months. Some days he would shiver, others he would sweat profusely – his mum holding his hand for comfort.

No beds were available at Papua New Guinea’s Port Moresby Hospital and no doctors were capable of treating him.

The growth between the 14-year-old boy’s eyes was spreading through his skull, causing him intense headaches, dizziness, a blocked nose – and killing him slowly.

At his village on the island of Rabaul, where there was no running water and no electricity, he had struggled to see the nearby chickens roaming through the coffee and vanilla crops. He could not hear the iron school bell echo in the distance or smell the salty sea air.

Outside the hospital, he did not notice the dying patients awkwardly pushing IV drips across the gravel road towards food trucks.

Though his mum hung on to hope, Kevin, the youngest of seven children, had given up. Survival, he said, was out of reach.

“People came to say goodbye to me, they were expecting me to die,” Kevin told the Weekend Herald.

“Many people around me died waiting.”

That was three years ago. Now, Kevin is 17 years old, is a scholarship pupil at Wesley College in South Auckland and dreams of one day becoming a surgeon like the one at Starship Hospital who saved his life.

“I remember the day a lady came to me and my mum, saying there was a doctor in New Zealand who wanted to help me,” Kevin said.

“I said ‘New Zealand, oh my gosh where is this?’ It was exciting but scary at the same time.”

When word of Kevin’s harrowing story reached the Rotary Oceania Medical Aid for Children (Romac), the charity agreed to bring him to New Zealand and pay for his operations. Romac is a New Zealand charity helping Pacific Island children access life-saving surgeries that aren’t available in their own country.

Wayne Brewer, a Romac member who is now Kevin’s carergiver, hosted the teen and his mother Veronica in Auckland.

“I remember Veronica saying ‘I don’t know how you can find your way around here’. She said ‘put me in the bush and I’ll never get lost but here I’m totally lost’,” Brewer said.

Starship Hospital was maze to Kevin: “I hadn’t seen anything like it”.

“I was really impressed with how the nurses treated me with such kindness, I was like, ‘people back home should see this’.”

Doctors discovered Kevin was suffering from a rare condition called juvenile angiofibroma, a non-cancerous growth that, if left untreated would have killed him, slowly and painfully in a matter of months. The condition is most common in teenage boys.

“Finding a surgical team, willing to take on Kevin’s advanced case was not easy but two Auckland surgeons Dr Richard Douglas and Dr Peter Hepner said ‘we do difficult, bring it on’,” Brewer said.

Kevin said he remembered being wheeled into the operating room.

“[Doctors] told my mum [and Brewer] they couldn’t come through and that’s when the tears started rolling down my eyes.”

It could have been the last time he saw them.

The surgery involved a camera being inserted into Kevin’s groin, up to the area of his growth in his head.

Instruments went up through the nasal passage and very slowly Douglas and his team removed the tumour, bit by bit.

The surgeons had to be very careful not to hit the wrong blood vessel because if they did, it could have set him blind, given him a stroke or killed him.

“It was very touch and go and I just can’t speak highly enough of Richard Douglas,” Brewer said.

The first surgery had to be abandoned because of exessive hemorrhaging, the second they were only able to remove 50 per cent of the tumour and on the final operation, which was 12 hours long, they took out the remaining 95 per cent.

Kevin was then referred to Dr Anthony Falkov at Auckland Radiation Oncology (ARO) where 22 rounds of radiation ensured the growth was completely eradicated.

While Kevin was undergoing his last surgery, Veronica couldn’t sit still in the hospital so Brewer took her to the Parnell Rose Garden where she happened to bump into two wives of neurosurgeons, who were holidaying in New Zealand from Holland.

“The three women talked, they prayed and they cried. It was the most emotional and amazing experience to see,” Brewer said.

Since surgery, his eyes have retracted but the sight has not returned in his left eye. He no longer experiences dizziness, headaches or block noses.

“It means a lot to me to be standing here today, it gives me the courage to try help others.”

Kevin, who described himself as a cheeky boy who was always getting into trouble, said: “I see doctors and people working in the medical field dedicating their lives to good and it gives me the mentality why I should try my hardest to give it a go.”

Unfortunately, Kevin’s family hardship didn’t end there. InPapua New Guinea, his father’s leg had to be amputated because of complications from type two diabetes. He died in August last year.

Veronica and Kevin’s older siblings remain in Papua New Guinea, but he continues to finish his schooling in New Zealand under the care of Brewer.

One day, Kevin says, he will become a surgeon and help save lives.

“I know what it is to suffer and I want to make sure others don’t have to suffer the way I did.”

In the meantime, he continues to give words of hope to his family and friends back home.

“I see most of the people in my village and for them dreams don’t come true. Sometimes I cry when I see they have given up,” he said.

“A lot of people ask how I ended up here, they give me a lot of support and they give me hope.”

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