On the eve of the Aon Maadi Regatta, former Marian College rower Libby Galbraith shares her incredible journey with Andy Hay. 

 

A day

Up early to bike to Kerrs Reach for 5am training. Big day. Find out this afternoon if I’m going to Aon Maadi.

Ride home to get ready for school. Feeling sick. So tired. Get bus to school.

When I get there my friends are like, ‘Oh my God, your foundation is terrible. You need to change it.’

Not wearing any makeup.

Get bus home and mention the make-up thing to Mum. She says I look really pale too.

She drives me to the doctor. Blood tests. Mum drives me back to afternoon training.

Coaches tell me I’m going to Maadi in a few weeks. Yay. Been aiming for this since forever.

Supposed to bike home but too exhausted, so Dad picks me up.

Get home and Mum’s had a phone call. I have to go straight to hospital.

A week

It was just before midnight when Libby Galbraith was admitted to Christchurch Hospital, still wearing her Marian College rowing uniform.

Early the next morning she woke up to find both of her parents in her room.

“I remember Mum and Dad being in the hospital room, like it must've been 5am and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I'm really sick because Dad's here'."

“Dad was always like super present in our lives [but] usually it's mom that looks after you when you're sick.

“And then of the doctors said cancer and it's the first time I'd heard the word cancer and that was quite a jolting moment."

There was a lot to process.

"Those first few days were just a blur, there's lots of information obviously, lots of surgeries, they're putting lots of lines into your body and getting your body ready for treatment and doing lots of lumbar punctures and trying to understand where the cancer's at and how far through my body it was. I was on a lot of drugs as well to keep me sedated."

A month

Libby had been in hospital for three weeks when the 6.3 magnitude quake devastated Christchurch and Lyttelton on the 22nd of February, 2011, at 12.51pm.

“I was in an airlocked room because I had no immunity.  When the earthquake happened, I had to go outside because the hospital flooded and I [must have] breathed in some dust in the air, I guess. And that caused a big lung infection.”

That left Libby’s medical team with a critical decision to make. They would have to put her cancer treatment on hold to prevent weakening her immune system any further so they could operate on her lung. Either way she was in serious trouble.

“I remember the surgeon saying to my mum and dad that the lung would 100 percent kill me, but the surgery might as well.”

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Libby Galbraith in Christchurch Hospital. She became seriously unwell after the February 2011 earthquake, with an infection in her lung. 

Libby’s parents were also coping with enormous stress at home. Their property was severely damaged, and eventually redzoned, in the quake.

“We were right on the Southshore frontage,” says Libby. “And all those houses went. So my parents and my sister moved in our caravan out to Springfield, which is in the middle of nowhere. It was just a field.”

And over 80km out of town and from the hospital.

A year...

“I was diagnosed in my rowing uniform and that was such a significance to me. My rowing uniform would stay on the edge of my bed every night and every morning I would get up, put my rowing uniform on and I would walk or if I was well enough do a wee training workout. Every day. It was such a vision for me. I'm trying to get back to this. I was so fixated. This is what I'm going to do.”

And another...

 During her time in hospital, as Libby continued her morning exercise routine in the blue and red Marian colours, she met another young patient from Christ’s College named David Clay.

“We had the same cancer. We went through treatment at the same time,” says Libby.

He was Dux and had been offered a couple of scholarships in the United States, one of them at Harvard.

Libby remembers him heading off to College every morning, wheeling his IV pole alongside him.

“He just loved school, he was amazing,” she says. "People used to think he was the doctor because the Christ's uniform is like a business suit and he'd come in with his wee briefcase [he used for school].  People would think, ‘Thank God, the doctor's here’.

“He was very smart. He could have been a doctor.”

A day in 2004

“I guess watching the Evers-Swindell twins was the starting point. I must have been like eight and I remember them winning the gold medal, and Mum and Dad had quite a few people around watching. And it was just such a moment. I was just hooked. I was like, ‘When I get to Marian College I'm gonna row, that's what I'm gonna do’. And that's what I did.”

Libby left Christchurch Hospital two and a half years after her sudden and frightening drive just before midnight on the day she found out she’d be going to Aon Maadi.

The doctors and staff knew just how much rowing meant to her, how the Evers-Swindells were “her people”.

Cake

Libby's medical team arranged a special Evers-Swindells cake for her final day of chemo. It was two-and-a half years from her original diagnosis.

Her last day of active chemo came with cake as a simple reward for everything she had brought to her treatment and recovery.

She’d inspired her medical team in the same way the twins had had inspired her. The girl who got up every morning to train in her Marian rowsuit with the hope of one day getting to Aon Maadi.

A lifetime

Libby’s now 27 and still lives in Christchurch. She and her partner Antony have two daughters Libby calls her miracle babies. Her treatment over the years made it unlikely she would ever have children.

Sierra-Rose is two. Alora-Grace is just six months old.

It’s all inked on her arm. The two fins of the whale tail represent her birth parents and the mum and dad who adopted her. The diamonds represent the many surgeries and months of chemo she endured and the strength it instilled in her.

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Sierra-Rose and Alora-Grace are there to mark a new part of her incredible story. There are flowers to illustrate her Fijian heritage.

And right in the centre where the tail joins the body - a fish.

It’s David Clay, the boy from Christ’s College who could have been a doctor.

He was just 18.

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Andy Hay

Andy Hay is a freelance producer, writer and rowing coach. He was cox of the world champion New Zealand eight of 1982 and '83. He is NZ Olympian #446.