Aiono Manu Fa’aea and her husband, Loma Junior Semeatu, on their wedding day. Photo / Supplied
Aiono Manu Fa’aea is quite literally half the woman she used to be.
A few years ago, she weighed 160kg and was taking daily medications for diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and sleep apnoea.
These days, her weight sits around 78kg, after undergoing weight-loss surgery in June last year – something that has wiped out her adverse health conditions and saved her life, she says.
The inspiration to undergo that surgery came about after the sudden loss of her husband, Loma Semeatu, in 2013.
He had suffered a heart attack two years previously and died a few days after the second. He was 36.
“He was losing weight. But he’d always been a big boy, from a young age. It was one of those things – too little, too late.
“We were trying for children and that was the impetus for weight loss at the time. Then he passed away and it was like: ‘Okay, no kids.'”
Fa’aea’s chance to have the surgery done came twice – first in 2016 and then in 2019, when she finally decided to go ahead with the process.
She had to lose 20kg to even be put on the public waiting list.
“The thing with the public health system is if you gain weight, they kick you off.”
When she met the mark, she then had to attend several seminars designed to mentally prepare those set to go under the knife.
After three cancellations – one due to a Covid lockdown in 2020 – Fa’aea had a type of weight loss surgery called the duodenal switch operation.
It removes 85 per cent of the stomach and does away with the majority of adverse health conditions – one of the key reasons she chose that type of surgery.
“The thing I learned from losing Loma is he died of a heart attack, so that was a wake-up call for me in terms of my own health journey.
“And just looking at my parents, in their 70s, taking medication. I just thought, ‘I don’t want to be at that age and doing the same thing.'”
A year on from surgery, Fa’aea is thriving in her job as a practising ethno-musicologist and educator. She also works for the Manukau Institute of Technology Te Pūkenga.
She has more energy and enjoys long walks around the neighbourhood.
Yet one thing she has had to explain on several occasions to her Samoan family and at Pacific events is the fact she cannot eat as much.
“They get mad,” she laughs.
“They say: ‘Eat, eat! Why aren’t you eating?’ In our cultures, they see it as a sign of disrespect that you’re not eating. Like the food isn’t good.
“I’m like: ‘Seriously, I can’t physically eat it.'”
She has figured out strategies to help her – eating very slowly, listening to others talk and talking a lot herself.
She still has the odd cheat meal, but is mindful of those as she never wants to go back to where she was.
The journey has also seen people leaving her life, with some saying she took the easy way out. But mentally, it is not easy, Fa’aea says.
This is life-long. People ask silly questions like: ‘Oh, what about the excess skin’? I tell them: ‘I’d rather be alive with excess skin than dead.'”
Asked what she thought her husband would have said, seeing her now, she says: “We talked about this journey together. It’s something that he wanted for me – for us.
“We were together 10 years and married five. If he was around now, he’d be saying: ‘Oh, my babe’s getting response.'”