Tue, Jun 8, 2021 10:34 AM

Letters to Live by: Coping with breast cancer and a heart attack

Carl and Karen Babe write a letter to Nelson Magazine readers about a traumatic 12 months where Karen survived breast cancer and Carl a heart attack.


The road since early 2020 for Nelson couple Carl and Karen Babe has been not so much rocky, as full of deep ravines. In February 2020 Karen, a hair salon owner, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Urgent surgery was delayed by the arrival of Covid-19 but then salvaged by a quick-thinking Nelson surgeon. Recovery was going well, and then in January this year Carl, a rescue helicopter crewman, suffered a near-fatal heart attack.

In the first of a new series in the Nelson Magazine, Letters to Live By, Carl reveals how they coped, in the hope it will help others, as told to Tracy Neal.

Should I have called the ambulance? Could I have known this would happen to us? Could we have changed our lifestyles to prevent this happening?

If I were being honest, the answer would be “no” to all these questions. Karen and I lead normal, healthy lives. We eat well, we don’t smoke and drink only ever occasionally, and I’d been taking medication to manage my cholesterol. We are fit and active.

But if I were sitting on a grenade, which in one way I was, should I have checked more closely that the pin hadn’t been pulled out? Perhaps, with my family history of cardiac problems I could have, but then there’s only so much insurance one can buy, and there’s only so much you can do to really know what’s going on.

Maybe I should have acknowledged the silent stress I’d been under with Karen’s cancer, and maybe also the lingering effects of a frightening and potentially catastrophic incident I was involved in just weeks before my heart almost stopped.

Karen dealt with her diagnosis better than I did. She didn’t have a family history of breast cancer, and on only her second mammogram, there it was – as it turned out; a high-grade aggressive cancer but luckily it hadn’t yet “jumped the fence”. We caught it, just in time.

The process from discovery was rapid, and a mastectomy was scheduled in Wellington, but then Covid lockdown hit, and surgery was cancelled as hospitals prepared for the pandemic.

Karen was in limbo for a few weeks. Surgeon Ros Pochin refused to consider the delay as acceptable, and luckily her instinct was right – the surgery had to be done immediately. She managed to pull off a solution that involved surgery here at Manuka Street Hospital. Karen went in at 9am one morning and was back home 24 hours later, with nursing care arranged at home.

It was a huge relief to discover the cancer was contained and that no aggressive follow-up treatment was needed. Karen decided to wait until later for a breast reconstruction. She needed space and time to just chill out and wait. And then…it was my turn.

For people in the community who have the type of heart attack I did, there’s a high risk of dying. I got lucky – I dodged a big bullet.

I knew what was happening on that day in January this year – my first day of annual leave and I was lying in bed with a coffee, staring out through the ranch sliders, thinking about whether to take the boat out.

I noticed a discomfort in my chest, thought it through, and stretched, but it didn’t go away. Being a typical bloke, I went and had a shower, thinking that would wash away the problem, but with the hot water hitting my body my vascular system went into overdrive and what was a mild discomfort became phenomenal crushing chest pain.

I lost the power in my arms and legs; my hearing and vision were going, and I knew without doubt I was having a significant cardiac event.

I tried to call out to my 19-year-old son who was in his bedroom down the hallway, but I was in a closed bathroom so I ran some numbers – if I collapse in the shower he won’t know. How am I going to get myself out of this problem? I knew I needed to get to him.

I got myself out of the shower, noticed I was the colour of a sheet of aluminium, got into some clothes somehow, slid down the hallway and managed to get my son’s attention.

It did cross my mind to call an ambulance, but we’re 500 metres from the hospital – I can see the doors to the Emergency Department from home. I’d heard the ambulance responding minutes earlier and I was expecting the next available one might be some time away.

I’ve had various opinions on whether that was a good decision or not, and it’s not the advice I’d give others, but in my case, it probably saved my life. That’s no disrespect to the ambulance service but they can’t be everywhere at once.

I said to my son, ‘look mate, just drive – if I slump forward, keep driving, drag me in the door and tell them: cardiac arrest. They’ll know what to do.’

We reached the one set of traffic lights between us and the hospital, and for a fleeting moment I did think they were going to be the death of me. The lights were changing to red, and I wondered if I’d die in a t-bone crash before I got to hospital. We slithered to a halt and there was this period of weird elevator music with Nora Jones playing while we waited for the lights to change again, and then we were off at warp factor nine.

My son, Jackson, did an incredibly good job – he never got excited or upset, he just did what he needed to do. He has grown up in a household where responses to a problem have to be matter of fact.

I rolled in the door at ED. Everything exploded into action and within minutes I was lying on the PCI (percutaneous coronary intervention) table with interventional cardiologist Nick Fisher ready to go, and I went to sleep for a bit.

We are supremely lucky to have that facility here in Nelson. We have an exceptional team and this specialist unit that is undoubtedly saving a lot of lives in this region. Their response to me was top drawer - they did save my life.

People sometimes say we’ve been unlucky but if Karen and I were to dwell on the events… yes, maybe we have been unlucky but you have to look at the other side of that - we are very lucky to live in New Zealand, we’re one of the safest countries in the world, we have access to top level medical care, we have a facility (PCI lab) at Nelson Hospital which many other regions don’t have.

There were a lot of lucky things that happened along the way, including the huge support I’ve had from my employer – GCH Aviation which operates the helicopter we use at the Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter Trust. They have supported me throughout the four months I’ve had off work – to the extent that colleagues have even provided home-cooked meals for us. I’m now back at work on light duties.

You can do everything within your power to live an optimal life, but chance and genetics will always win out.

I’d say to you, the reader, denial isn’t a remedy. Take advantage of the checks available to you. If there are problems, don't sit back, get on and do it. Every day is valuable.

Written for Nelson Magazine