Kat Schurmann: A little girl's remarkable adventure

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David McCarthy
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Kat Schurmann: A little girl's remarkable adventure

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Kat Schurmann: A little girl's remarkable adventure

Robert Lockett was a Kiwi petrochemical engineer. His wife Jeanne was a native Amazonian he'd met in Brazil.

They sailed a yacht from the United Kingdom to New Zealand so Robert could show Jeanne his country. When they arrived, they discovered Jeanne was pregnant so they stayed on, living in Mahurangi, north of Auckland. Their daughter, Katherine, was born in July 1992, at Auckland's North Shore Hospital.

A decade and a half later, all three would be dead, victims of the HIV virus which Jeanne unknowingly contracted from a blood transfusion after a traffic accident in Brazil in 1988, then passed to husband and daughter.

Yet behind those terrible facts lies a remarkable story of sacrifice and compassion, of secrets and fate, and of how family is more than just blood ties. The story of Kat's life and death has become a bestselling book in Brazil, and it is now being turned into a feature film, directed by Kat's adoptive brother David Schurmann. Last week, on a Skype call from Sao Paolo, Schurmann told the story of Kat.

Kat was carrying the virus when she was born but no-one knew this till a couple of years later, when the family was in Brazil visiting Jeanne's family, and Kat fell ill. Doctors eventually tested for HIV. Jeanne and Robert took the test, too: both positive.

"This couple with an amazing life and a young child were suddenly going off in a different, tragic, direction," Schurmann says.

They stayed in Brazil, where Jeanne died six months later of toxoplasmosis, one of the minor diseases that prove fatal to someone with a compromised immune system. Before she died she extracted a promise from Lockett: if he was no longer able to care for Kat he must track down a Brazilian family they once knew, and ask them to adopt her.

That family were the Schurmanns: Vilfredo and Heloisa, and their three sons Pierre, David and Wilhelm. The Schurmanns are unknown in New Zealand but, according to David Schurmann, his family are a bit like the "Jacques Cousteau of Brazil" - household names because of the documentaries about their epic yacht voyages.

The Locketts and Schurmanns had met in New Zealand, after the Schurmanns sailed into the Bay of Islands in 1989. The families were still close in 1993, when they spent a summer sailing together in Northland, but later fell out of touch.

Then, in April 1995, when the Schurmanns were throwing a huge party in Rio de Janeiro to launch a book about their travels, "out of the blue, Robert showed up with Kat".

At first, Lockett was cagey about why Jeanne wasn't with him, but eventually admitted she was dead and he was raising Kat alone. He spent some months with the Schurmanns before finally revealingthe full enormity of his situation, and the promise he'd made to Jeanne.

Lockett's news was "a huge shock", says Schurmann. His mother Heloisa loved Kat and was willing to care for her, but she asked Lockett why he hadn't asked his dead wife's family to take Kat. The problem, replied Lockett, was that, if he sent Kat up the Amazon, where medical facilities were poor, she might not survive long.

After a lengthy legal process involving a judge and social workers, the Schurmanns adopted young Kat.

"You have to understand," says Schurmann, "that my family is not normal. We're not hippies or crazies, but we're very connected to love, and to feelings, and to people".

In 1997, at the age of 5, Kat leapt feet-first into another of her new parents' adventures, joining them, as well as David Schurmann and his film crew, on a 2 1/2-year journey retracing Ferdinand Magellan's circumnavigation of the world, filming it for Brazilian TV.

"She went to the most amazing places in the the world: Patagonia, French Polynesia, Samoa, up to Asia, Philippines, Indonesia. She saw the world," says Schurmann.

Kat's illness complicated the itinerary, as she made side-trips to Brazil and the United States to adjust her medications. The family weren't super-rich, just well connected, and top doctors treated her for free.

Not everyone was as generous. In one country, the family asked the Brazilian embassy for help finding a clinic for a white-blood-cell treatment for Kat, and were told that, because she had HIV, they should simply leave the country.

While Kat knew she had a grave illness, for years the Schurmanns didn't tell her it was HIV, promising to fill in the details "when she was old enough".

Kat had a permanent limp because of the virus and, when the cameras were running, "my father used to take Kat on his shoulders so no-one saw her limp - we didn't want people to judge her".

Kat seemed wise beyond her years, says Schurmann, and would cram as much into her day as she could. On the boat, she would wake early, and shout: "It's time for adventure. Get up sleepyheads - the sun's up!"

"Some doctors said you need to protect her, not have her swim with dolphins, not visit glaciers, not go to the Philippines - but my parents wanted her to live her life."

Kat stayed in touch with her father, who was slowly getting sicker. Before he became too ill, he visited Brazil every couple of years, and Kat visited him with her new parents. Lockett died in 2002, and is buried at North Shore Memorial Park.

When Kat was about 9, the Schurmanns took her to North Shore Hospital, where she was born. Remarkably, a nurse who'd delivered her remembered the birth. She recalled Kat's mother because she'd seemed so different - a native Amazonian, and so tiny.

Kat, says Schurmann, "was a Kiwi-Brazilian girl", despite spending most of her life in Brazil or travelling.

One doctor told Heloisa the girl she'd just adopted wouldn't last six months. Yet Kat survived more than a decade. At 13, she was finally told the exact nature of her illness, and said she wanted to go public. She was a celebrity, someone who got stopped for autographs, and she wanted to show that people with HIV "didn't have the word Aids on their forehead".

But before that happened, at a family barbecue shortly before her 14th birthday, Kat started coughing. She'd had pneumonia before, but not like this. In days her lungs flooded; her heart couldn't cope. She died on May 29, 2006. A few months later the Schurmanns brought her ashes to New Zealand, and she was buried in the family plot, along with her birth mother and father.

Kat was a "firecracker", says Schurmann. "She was one of those people who really has a zest for life. She really wanted to live her life all the time. There was a real spark."

David Schurmann's film, Pequeno Segredo (Little Secret), will be released in late 2015, and stars New Zealand actor Erroll Shand as Kat's father. See pequenosegredo.com.

- Sunday Star Times
http://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/life/ ... -adventure
But he has nothing on at all, cried at last the whole people....
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