Comeback of a lifetime: Tiari Barber, 12, returns to sport, life from rare disease

A year on from treatment, Kerianna Stirling, dog Wolf, and Tiari Barber, 12, at home on the sofa in Ōtaki.

JOEL MAXWELL/STUFF

A year on from treatment, Kerianna Stirling, dog Wolf, and Tiari Barber, 12, at home on the sofa in Ōtaki.

It’s the first training of winter, and there was a girl with tears on her cheeks making the comeback of her life.

Tiari Barber, 12, cried during her warm ups, as the other rugby girls ran faster. But she kept running.

Tiari wasn’t coming back from a torn muscle or a damaged ligament. She was coming back from chemotherapy, a transplant, an incredibly rare but life-threatening blood disease. Quarantine. Hospital. 

In September, 2016, Tiari was waiting in hospital for her  transplant.

LAWRENCE SMITH/STUFF

In September, 2016, Tiari was waiting in hospital for her transplant.

She was coming back to life.

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A year after Stuff reported Tiari’s return home to Ōtaki, north of Wellington, from a bone marrow transplant at Starship Hospital, she has spoken about what happened next.

Tiari  in the front row with head gear, with the Rahui under 15 girls rugby team in the 2017 season.

SUPPLIED

Tiari in the front row with head gear, with the Rahui under 15 girls rugby team in the 2017 season.

In May last year Tiari was diagnosed with aplastic anaemia, one of only five people in New Zealand at the time with the disease where bone marrow stops producing blood and immunity cells.

Her first symptom was a bruise that covered her whole thigh after an opposition player stood on it during a tackle in an under-11 rugby league match. Then she had flu-like symptoms.

Blood tests were so serious she was on a flight to Auckland the same day, and had a bone marrow biopsy the next morning. 

Tiari recovering from chemotherapy in Starship Hospital in 2016.

SUPPLIED

Tiari recovering from chemotherapy in Starship Hospital in 2016.

She needed a bone marrow transplant.

Of the 28 million registered bone marrow donors in the world there were only five matches for Tiari, and they found one in New Zealand: a stranger, and matching donor, willing to help.

Tiari’s new bone marrow was harvested from the donor, in mid-September, then given to her via blood transfusion. Her own marrow had been wiped out with chemotherapy.

In 2016, Kerianna Stirling, with daughter Tiari Barber. Stirling shaved her head to support Tiari, who lost her hair due to chemotherapy treatment for aplastic anaemia.

SUPPLIED

In 2016, Kerianna Stirling, with daughter Tiari Barber. Stirling shaved her head to support Tiari, who lost her hair due to chemotherapy treatment for aplastic anaemia.

This week, her mum Kerianna Stirling said the new marrow was “doing the job” and her daughter’s life was pretty much normal again.

Her return to sport, which she had always loved, was part of that – including joining a girls rugby team after nearly a year of illness.

Tiari said she played “hooker or prop” – in rugby, the powerhouse positions in the front row of scrums.

During the tough times of chemotherapy, then aged 11, is Tiari Barber.

LAWRENCE SMITH/STUFF

During the tough times of chemotherapy, then aged 11, is Tiari Barber.

From the first warm-up of the season she was much slower than everybody else – tears ran down her cheeks but she refused to quit.

Her mum was there, and urged the team coaches to let her continue.

“She cried, but she carried on; all the crying, she kept crying and all her mates were like ‘are you ok?’ but she finished it. Did the warm-ups.”

Her fitness crept back with every training, and by the end of the season she was back in full swing on the field – even playing games in the under 13 boys grade as well.

Before her first match, and her first hit-out on the field, Tiari said it might have been a little scary. “Kind of, but then it wasn’t.”

Stirling said the last two years had been “a hell of a journey” and she still had Facebook posts popping up from when things had been very different.

Last year, one of the worst moments was when doctors revealed none of Tiari’s family were a match for a bone marrow transplant.

“It’s really hard, because she’s sick, and you try and do everything you can for your kids, but this one time there was nothing I could do to help her.”

Tiari had come back “a little bit hungrier” for life, Stirling said, and was keen to experience everything – art, music, and sport.

Stirling was glad for the Ōtaki community’s support, and glad for the bone marrow donor.  “If we didn’t have him, I don’t know where we would be.”

But mostly, “I’m glad to be on the other end of it”.