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Caleb can’t remember the moment he decided on nursing as a career. But he does know that he’s always wanted to make a difference.

“I can always remember growing up saying, no matter what I did, I’d like to do something to help people, because I had so many people helping me when I was sick.”

Caleb was born in 1997 with Total Anomalous Pulmonary Venous Drainage. His mum knew right away that something wasn’t right. However, the congenital heart defect, which affects the heart’s pulmonary veins, wasn’t picked up straight away.

“Mum knew something was wrong, but the doctors didn’t believe her. She insisted and got me double checked, then triple checked.”

Caleb had heart surgeries at two months old and shortly after he turned two: he has hazy memories of that hospital stay. 

Later, when he started school, Caleb found he lagged behind the other students, especially when it came to sport. At seven, he was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, for which he still takes daily medication.

Throughout his heart journey, Heart Kids NZ has been a constant part of his life, Caleb says. As a youngster his mum was on the local branch committee. He remembers going to the meetings and events, and collecting donations on the street on appeal day. Later, as a young adult, he’d attend pizza nights and outings.

He’s forged strong connections with support workers, who have checked in on him ahead of appointments and during lockdowns. 

“They’ve all been really helpful,” he says.

The connection with people who get it – the support workers, and other young people on heart journeys –  is meaningful, Caleb said.

“There’s no awkward silence at Heart Kids gatherings, we can all relate to each other. You don’t know exactly what people have gone through, but we’re the same in a way.”

In fact, it was through Heart Kids NZ that Caleb found love. He’d met Chelsea when he was nine, at Camp Braveheart, the annual event where heart kids come together for fun and adventure. 

Years later, they reconnected, and Chelsea invited Caleb to her birthday dinner. They hung out more and more, building on their shared history. Recently, they got engaged, and they’re now planning a life together in Christchurch once Caleb finishes his training.

The couple have that unique understanding that only people who’ve travelled that same path can have, Caleb says.

And it’s that deep sense of empathy that has informed Caleb’s career choice. His experiences have allowed him to relate to his patients. 

“If I had a patient in emergency with a zipper [heart surgery scar] on their chest, I’d say, I’m part of the zipper club too.”

Throughout his studies, the nursing student has gained experience through a range of placements, getting a taste of what a future career might look like. Perhaps not surprisingly, he’s leaning towards paediatric care. 

“Being a sick child, all these people looked after me. Hopefully I can do that for another heart family.”