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Terminal 20-year-old hopes to visit biological family as 'bucket list'

POSTED: June 15, 2014 5:00 p.m.
Jessica Malungahu/

Malungahu Family.

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, Utah — A 20-year-old woman was given eight weeks to live and her "bucket list" wish is to visit her biological family in New Zealand and Tonga.

Vaioleti Malungahu moved to the United States with her mother when she was 5 years old. Vaioleti left behind her father and three older brothers in Tonga. She was later adopted by her first cousin, Taylor Malungahu and his wife, Jessica, when she was 11 years old.

Jessica said Vaioleti developed a series of health problems after arriving in the U.S. and after a lot of testing, she was diagnosed with idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy — which often starts in the left ventricle, causing the heart muscleto to dilate and the inside of the chamber to enlarge. Vaioleti had to have a heart transplant when she was 9 years old, and she struggled for several years with bouts of rejection. She was constantly in and out of the hospital.

"Four years ago, (doctors) told her she wouldn't make it, and they basically sent her home and told us she was going to die by Christmas," Jessica said. "But for some reason, being home her heart looked better than the whole time she has been in the hospital. Being home kind of healed her."

In December, Vaioleti had tricuspid valve repair and she also had a pacemaker put in. She started doing better, but then many of her symptoms returned and doctors discovered she had a rapidly progressing form of coronary artery disease called coronary allograft vasculopathy.

"It is specific to transplant patients," Jessica said. "Once they get that it keeps progressing until they go. It progresses really rapidly."

Jessica said Vaioleti has always wanted to travel back to Tonga to see her biological father and brothers again as well as going to New Zealand to visit her grandmother. However, because of her unstable health conditions, doctors had always advised against traveling outside of the country.

"But now where her disease is and where it's progressed, they've released her to hospice and then they just told her, 'Anything you want to do, we will make sure it happens on our side,' " Jessica said. "So they've told us that she can travel now because it's not going to affect the outcome of her disease. She would just like to be able to go and see all of them."

Jessica said she, Taylor and their four children want to make the trip with Vaioleti to New Zealand and Tonga. She said the family is trying to raise funds to leave by July 4. They set up an account* on fundraising site, Give Forward and have raised $10,000 of the $15,000 needed to fund the trip.

"Everyone has been really supportive," Jessica said. "It's just about her and what we want to do to make this last (time) that she has (special.) We had 10 years with her that we wouldn't have had otherwise."

Faith Heaton Jolley is a UVU graduate and currently works at KSL as head writer for ksl.com and runs the Outdoors & Recreation section. Contact her at fheaton@ksl.com.

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