Shortland Street star Ava Diakhaby’s secret health battle: ‘It was terrifying’

The actress has struggled with an invisible illness while starring in our favourite soap. Photo / Supplied

Not many people will have guessed that British-born beauty Ava Diakhaby has been battling a chronic disease the entire time she has brightened up our screens as the gregarious Jojo on Shortland Street.

The actress was beyond excited to start work on the Kiwi soap when the 2020 lockdown threw a spanner in the works, halting production for weeks. It was during this time Ava started feeling extremely unwell.

“Once we went into level 2 of the first-ever lockdown, I was suddenly so sick,” she shares.

“I lost all of my energy and was bedridden. I thought it was my anxiety talking until I noticed certain symptoms that gave me a shock. I went into hospital, had a colonoscopy and was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis.”

When she learned she had the disease, Ava, 26, then had to grapple with the idea of taking medication for the rest of her life as there is no cure.

“The first thing I asked was, ‘Can I have children?’ ” Ava tells. “They said, ‘Yes, of course.’ But I didn’t know what having the disease meant. It was terrifying.

“Right now, I’m absolutely fine and I have been for a whole year. But the year leading up to that, I was on a cocktail of medication that really messed with me mentally and physically. I was so tired. I couldn’t eat because it would hurt, but I’d be so hungry. I was often incredibly dizzy or fatigued.”

"I didn't know what having the disease meant. It was terrifying." Photo / Supplied
“I didn’t know what having the disease meant. It was terrifying.” Photo / Supplied

Ava avoided going out and was terrified that she would have to rush to the bathroom while on set. She also had to have weekly blood tests to make sure her liver wasn’t adversely affected by the medication she was taking.

“I was living in a constant state of fear and then as soon as I felt better, I’d still be living in fear wondering when I was going to be bad again,” she admits.

Slowly, as her health has improved, Ava has been able to stop taking some of the medications she was initially prescribed. She has also had some success with altering her diet.

“When it was incredibly bad, I went vegan for a month and it actually just settled my stomach, then I reintroduced the meat. Unlike irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis is the sister disease, where you don’t have to worry so much about what you eat. I do try to stay dairy-free, though … apart from cheese – it’s too delicious!” she says with a laugh.

She’s incredibly grateful that her illness didn’t prevent her from taking up her spot on Shorty. Ava had her heart set on being an actress from a very early age, so when she arrived in Aotearoa in 2009, she was pleasantly surprised to see a fellow Brit, former Coronation Street actor Adam Rickitt, playing a villain in the Kiwi soap.

On Shorty with Kura Forrester, who she's teaming up with on a new project. Photo / Supplied
On Shorty with Kura Forrester, who she’s teaming up with on a new project. Photo / Supplied

But with her Senegalese heritage, a 13-year-old Ava wasn’t sure that someone who looked like her would get the chance to follow in his footsteps.

“I’ll be honest, I never saw myself being allowed to be on a New Zealand show,” tells Ava.

“I hadn’t really seen people like me on Kiwi TV, so when it happened, it was just magic.

“And it’s made a difference. Even the little things – like my braids. So many people have stopped me and said, ‘Thank you for having your hair like that on TV – it means so much’. Even I probably take it for granted, but for people who never see themselves on telly, they see that and they go, ‘There’s a bit of me’.”

Sadly, Jojo met an untimely end last week when she crashed the ambulance she was driving to help out her on-again, off-again partner Vili. Ava had watched her character’s demise just minutes before her interview with Woman’s Day and is understandably still a little bit teary.

“Filming that scene was emotionally and physically really exhausting,” Ava admits.

“Jojo’s dying … it feels like a tiny part of me is dying with her. Then you see all the other characters carrying on. It just really hit home that the world doesn’t stop when you die – it’s quite a bleak realisation.”

Ava Diakhaby's final soap scene had the star in tears. Photo / Supplied
Ava Diakhaby’s final soap scene had the star in tears. Photo / Supplied

Ava does see the bright side, though. “I don’t know that I’ll get to play someone dying again in my career! That’s an incredible gift. It’s also given me a lot of confidence in my acting.”

With her health on the mend, Ava’s ultimate aim is to get down to one medication, an anti-inflammatory agent called Pentasa, which she will most likely be on for the rest of her life. And now that she’s finished on Shortland Street, she’s looking forward to taking some time out.

“I’ve been feeling really well, so I feel incredibly blessed,” says Ava.

“I’ve got a lovely holiday in Fiji planned and when I get back, I’ll be stepping into rehearsals for Dynamotion, a comedy dance show with Kura Forrester. It will be so much fun!”

Shortland Street airs 7pm weekdays on TVNZ 2.

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