When her lungs lit up like a Christmas tree
She can still get the crowds grooving and cheering her on like groupies at their favourite singer’s gig.
But Debbie Walker’s voice is different now - not as powerful as it could be, but deeper and hoarse.
Two years ago she was clutching at straws, as she searched for the reason why the wind was making her struggle to breathe, let alone singing, and why she could no longer walk three metres without puffing.
In February 2017, some three long months later, Debbie discovered she had severe clotting in her lungs.
“Any of the clots could have travelled to my brain and killed me,” she says.
“I was told later that people get clots from birth control all the time, but I was unaware of the risks.”
The year before, Debbie had torn the meniscus in her knee whilst at work, and was struggling to walk. As she awaited knee surgery, a medical certificate was required to confirm she couldn’t work to be covered under ACC.
At the time her usual doctor wasn’t available, so she saw a different GP in the same surgery.
“He didn’t know me from a bar of soap, and said ‘let’s go through your file notes.
“He noticed I was on Cerazette, a contraceptive pill which you can take anytime of the day and never get a period. It was perfect and I had been on it for 15 years.”
The doctor insisted that Cerazette can cause clotting, and advised her to change her form of contraceptive.
“I really didn’t think I needed to change it,” says Debbie. “It suited my lifestyle and my quality of life, but the doctor told me that Ava was subsidised and the one I was taking wasn’t, so I agreed to the change.”
Within weeks she noticed some worrying symptoms, but rationalised many of her episodes.
She would feel heat and tingling down the side of her leg, but assumed it was just cramp as a result of her exercise programme at the pool. She also had severe breathing problems, which she blamed on the strong winds.
“I couldn’t breathe. I would sit on the couch, look at the wind outside and avoid any outside social activities, as I assumed it was being affected by the wind.
“I continued exercising each day in the pool and also went to a chiropractor, a physiotherapist and a nerve massage specialist, but nothing helped.
“I also took myself to Accident and Emergency twice and I was seen immediately, because you always are when you’re short of breath.”
A chest x-ray suggested Debbie had bronchitis, and she was told to use an inhaler and given prednisone.
However, after finding she still couldn’t get rid of her ‘bronchitis’, Debbie’s mother insisted her daughter should make a follow up appointment with her regular doctor.
“I came in hot, breathless, ashen and sweaty,” says Debbie, “and the doctor immediately diagnosed me with clots. She put me on an ECG machine, which monitors your heart.”
Once back in hospital, she was immediately injected with anticoagulants to prevent further clotting and was given a CT scan.
“The results came back and my lungs were full of clots. They lit up like a Christmas tree.
“I’ve never seen the pictures, because I wouldn’t cope with seeing them, but every time I see my doctor - the one that saved my life - says ‘you’re a lucky girl’. I could have died at any point in that three month period.”
Two years on, Debbie still feels the effects. She used to be able to play squash, walk 3km and swim around 100 laps every day. The surgery for her knee is also on hold.
“I’m at risk of bleeding out on the table, which means I’m still struggling to walk and breathe,” she says. “This whole cycle I’m stuck in is affecting my quality of life.”
Despite all the obstacles that she deals with on a day-to-day basis, Debbie battles through them, shows up to whatever she can, and regularly performs karaoke at various bars around Tauranga.
She’s managed to make it into most of the karaoke competition finals she’s entered, but it’s a challenge hindered by restricted breath and projection. She also plays and teaches piano.
“My dream has always been to be a cruise ship pianist, so I booked a three-day cruise for my 50th birthday before I found out I was unwell.
“I organised with the resident musician on the ship to play the piano one night.”
When she found she was ill, Debbie worried that she wouldn’t be able to go, but her consultant said it would be fine.
“He said I should go, that I needed something to look forward to and to enjoy my life as I was lucky to be alive.”
Ironically, she planned to go on a cruise a month earlier in the February, but every time she tried to book there were no cancellations.
“The booking agent said it was very unusual that nobody had cancelled but, you know, I was never meant to be on that earlier cruise!
“If anything had happened I would have dropped dead on the ship, but the universe was saying ‘no, I don’t want you on that boat, you’ve got to be in hospital’.”
While on the cruise, Debbie experienced two extraordinary moments in her piano and karaoke career.
“In the piano bar, the resident musician got me up one night and said ‘we never do this, but this is Debbie and she’s going to play with me. We are going to do a song together and she doesn’t know what song I’m going to choose’.”
The audience cheered her on as they began to play Elton John’s Rocket Man. When the instruments stopped playing, the audience starting to chant ‘bring back Debbie!’.
“That was the pinnacle of my career - to know that I was good enough to be on a cruise and play to a professional standard.”
After performing karaoke on board, Debbie took a moment to share the experiences of the previous week, how she’d been rushed to hospital with clots on her lungs but was able to live her dream.
“People came up to me afterwards, acknowledged my story and thanked me for sharing,” she says.
“We are all human, we’ve all got something that we are dealing with, but I’m grateful that I got to live my dream and that I still have my life.”