Meet Galy O’Connor, the woman who saved 25 lives while battling cancer

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Galy O’Connor was battling asbestos-related cancer, but the Australian made it her mission to help others and subsequently saved 25 lives. Image via Change.org
Galy O’Connor was battling asbestos-related cancer, but the Australian made it her mission to help others and subsequently saved 25 lives. Image via Change.org
  • Galy O’Connor was battling asbestos-related cancer, but the Australian made it her mission to help others.
  • As a result of her courage, at least 25 people are alive today as a result.
  • Galy and two of those people share their stories of courage exclusively with Gary Nunn.

Eight years ago, for her 50th birthday, Galy O’Connor’s celebration was characteristically caring. The enthusiastic mountain climber and personal trainer taught a fundraising fitness class at her local gym. She asked participants to donate to the 2011 Queensland floods appeal instead of buying her a gift. At heart, she was still the same girl who’d asked her mum if she could bring homeless people to live with them, so they didn’t shiver in lonely streets.

“We were having an absolute ball,” says Australian, Galy of the class. “Then, as I was jumping up and down, calling out instructions, I felt it.”

That ‘it’- a small lump in her toned stomach - was about to transform her life and eventually the lives of 25 complete strangers.

The personal becomes political

That lump had been caused years earlier - before Galy had married or had children, even before she’d climbed her first mountain, at age 18, to impress a “good-looking guy” in Kenya. She’d climbed mountains yearly after that and was in training to climb Mount Everest at the time of that 50th birthday fitness class.

But long before she’d even imagined herself on a mountain top, Galy’s first job, aged 13, had been cleaning the asbestos-riddled factory where her dad worked. Now, 37 years later, she faced an asbestos-related cancer diagnosis.

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Initially, Galy was nonchalant. She wasn’t about to let a tiny lump ruin her special birthday.

“I don’t have the panic mechanism. I got my hair and nails done and had a Brazilian (wax),” she sasy. But a real battle was brewing. Not only the one for Galy’s life but the battle to secure life-saving treatment for her type of cancer in Australia. We’re widely considered to be blessed with one of the world’s best health systems but not, until recently, if you had Galy’s rare stomach cancer, peritoneal mesothelioma. 

Only a small number of surgeons in the country can operate, and one of the leaders in the field is Professor David Morris. He has an international reputation for the intricate, highly complex and intense 10-plus hour abdominal operation required - a peritonectomy. But Professor Morris’s waiting list was lengthy - six months - and this was time  Galy didn’t have. Within six months, her operable cancer would likely become untreatable, possibly even fatal.

When she asked what she could do, Professor Morris had a suggestion. “He said, ‘You could help me. You could make people aware of this situation',” Galy remembers.

The situation was political. Professor Morris was performing three peritonectomy operations per week at St George Hospital in Sydney’s south. He wanted the government to fund more theatre time so he could do at least four life-saving operations weekly. But they kept delaying, saying a new abdominal cancer centre would be built in six months. That time bomb kept ticking, literally inside Galy’s stomach.

The fatal tick-tock was also reverberating for patients next to Galy on the peritonectomy waiting list. One was Rebecca Kortz, 47. Diagnosed in July 2016, she remembers the impact on her 18-year-old rugby union playing son, who learned of his mum’s condition just before a big match. “He collapsed as he ran onto the field for the semi-finals,” she says.

Rushed to hospital with bad constipation, Rebecca didn’t take it too seriously. She told nurses: “I’m the head of the Australian Missing Persons Unit; we have a media launch tomorrow. Can I leave soon to board a flight?” She’ll never forget the doctor’s response. “He said, ‘If you get on a flight, the only way you’re getting off is in a body bag. A cancerous tumour dangerously blocks your bowel. It starves your body of nutrients, and we need to operate urgently.” She was within hours of death.

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That August, Rebecca was told that it would be her last if she made it through to Christmas. “My sister and I had planned my funeral,” the mother of two remembers, crying.

Then, in October, there was a glimmer of hope against all odds. Rebecca discovered she could travel from Canberra to see a man who could work medical miracles - Professor David Morris - but there was a waiting list.

Father-of-two Jacques Beyers, 46, who has been in the police force and the army, knows the feeling well. Initially, he was told he had a 50 percent chance of seeing out the next five years. Then, as the full, harrowing peritoneal mesothelioma cancer diagnosis became clear, Professor Morris’ name came up. It was a shaft of hope, but the waiting list was too long. His cancer would be inoperable by the time he reached the top. It was devastating news: “I drew up my will, handed over all my passwords and told my sons. Saying goodbye to them - they’re only eight and 10 - was the hardest thing I’ve ever ...” He pauses, his face sodden with tears.

I’m not ready to die.

Galy went home after the discussion with Professor Morris to consider his appeal to her. She discussed it with her husband, Brian, and their six children (Galy bans the word ‘stepchildren’, but three are biological kids from her previous marriage).

“It was uncomfortable,” she admits. “I’m a private person. I’m a fighter at outdoor challenges, not political ones. But I asked my children, ‘How would you feel if I used my story to create awareness of this situation to change things?’ They said, ‘Mum, whatever it takes, we’re behind you.’”

Galy went hard. A younger family member told her about Change.org. This petition site would allow Galy to share her story in her own words, amass supporters and then give them actions such as writing to and calling the NSW Health Minister and then Premier Mike Baird. She flipped open her laptop and started typing. From the first words, her desperation was clear: “I’m not ready to die.”

One thing she was crystal clear about from the very start was that this was about clearing the waiting list for everyone, not just her: “I said, ‘I wait my turn. I’m not queue jumping. This is for all of us.”

More and more people signed her petition, and many left comments explaining they were in the same situation. One was from Jacques.

“One day, out of the blue, I got this email from Change.org saying, ‘Will you sign this petition?’ It’s weird - I rarely read my emails, and I never read their emails, but something made me open this one. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Galy described exactly my situation. She had the same rare cancer as me. It hit so close to home.”

He spent hours trying to find her. “I was Googling frantically, trying to find out who this Galy O’Connor was. I tried several numbers until I finally got to her. I said, ‘Please, I must meet you. What you’re doing, if you succeed, it could save my life.”

The next day, they met for coffee. “We hit it off,” he says. “She has such a strong personality. She’s like a velvet glove over an iron fist. She latched onto Mike Baird and did not let go.”

That night, Galy posted an update to her petition - now 100,000 strong. She said she’d met Jacques, also a parent, who lived in the same unbearable pain”. She told supporters that he too was waiting for the government to make more funding available. And while he was waiting, he was dying. Signing off to her army of supporters, urging them to contact then NSW Health Minister Jillian Skinner, she wrote: “Jacques, I promise you will get this operation ASAP ... I, and we will do this for you!”

READ MORE | 'I threw my breasts a farewell party before having them removed due to cancer concerns' 

A miracle worker

The clincher came as Galy pivoted her campaign squarely onto Premier Mike Baird, who also, fortuitously, was her local MP. She submitted a powerful opinion piece to a newspaper, headlined: ‘Please don’t let me die, Mr Baird’. Posting the story to her petition page, she added the telephone number for the Premier’s office and a simple message. “Call him,” she wrote, “and ask him to save Galy.” If -as is common with Change.org petitions - just five per cent of Galy’s 100,000 engaged supporters called that number after reading her compelling opinion piece, the Premier’s office would have received 5000 calls that day.

The next day, Galy received a phone call. It was from Mike Baird himself.

He said, “I’ve been very emotionally involved in your campaign. Sometimes your hands are tied as a politician, but I want you to know you’re all getting your operation’. He knew the ‘all’ was really important to me. I just said, ‘thank you, thank you, thank you, you’re amazing, I’ll vote for you,” she remembers. Baird stepped down as Premier before she got to make good on her promise, but she remains inexpressibly grateful.

In an emotional video thanking her petition supporters, she said, “It’s overwhelming; we did it! I’m getting my operation. Jacques is getting his operation. I’m terrified. But I have a chance of living.”

The media reported that 25 people were given an earlier operation date due to the new funding that allowed Professor Morris his extra theatre time and ICU beds.

Jacques marvels at her tenacity. “I know what she was going through.

She was bleeding internally, she was sick as a dog, but she’d text me like it was going out of fashion to make sure I was coping. I was in a really dark place. I wouldn’t have had it in me.” Jacques’ eyes are still filled with tears. “You know,” he says, “that woman deserves an award - not just for taking on the giants but for being such a supportive friend. She checked in with all of us.”

Although his recovery has been extremely painful, physically and psychologically, he insists that “she has given me my life back. The alternative would’ve been an extremely painful, slow death.” Galy spent three months in hospital and lost 15 kilos. While she was there, a teenage girl approached her and said, “You’re Galy O’Connor! I need to hug you. Because of you, my mum’s going to live. I’ll never be able to repay you.”

Another day, the patient next door - Rebecca Kortz - watched Galy limp by. Rebecca had her life-saving operation just before Galy because of Galy’s insistence on not queue jumping. But she still didn’t know who Galy was or how she had worked to save both their lives.

“She was up and about so soon after her operation, which she had after me, and was older than me. I couldn’t even bring myself to get out of bed,” says Rebecca. “She motivated me to want to get up and get better too.” They struck up a conversation and connected immediately: “We discussed how much, as mothers, we wanted to live for our kids, to see them grow up,” she says. A nurse saw the two talking and, when Galy limped back to her bed, turned to Rebecca and said, “You do know who that is, don’t you?” Rebecca admitted she had no idea. “That’s the woman,” the nurse explained, “who fought to clear the waiting list for the operation you just had.”

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Rebecca cries as she remembers what this meant to her: “The only reason I’m alive right now is because of that op, and getting it when I did.” Her oncologist has recently given her a glowing outlook. “From the minute I met her, I was inspired by Galy’s willingness to live - how she embraced life. What I didn’t know was that she had also saved mine.”

One more mountain

Life since her successful campaign hasn’t been easy for Galy. She’s had four peritonectomy and has “the bare minimum” of organs left inside her. “There’s not much left to take,” she jokes. Galy sits, sipping coffee, in a room filled with ‘hamsa’ ornaments - the hand-shaped good luck charms that decorate every wall in her home. “This symbolises wellbeing,” she says. “I give them to people I care about to protect them from adversity.” And she presses one into my palm. Galy lives with excruciating pain has battled morphine addiction, and says, “there’s been a lot of loss. There are a lot of things, as a woman, you can no longer do. I can’t dress like I used to. Travel was such a big part of who I was. I didn’t leave the house for a year. My dreams are narrower. I accept that I’ll never climb Everest.”

The pain is constant.

“I’d pray to any god listening to relieve it,” she says. Still, in the midst of it all, she has started a craft supply business. She donates 10 percent of the profits of a popular line back to Professor David Morris, hoping nobody in Australia will ever endure waiting to see if their life will be saved from an operable asbestos cancer.

But the biggest news in Galy’s life is that she’s become a grandmother. Her daughter, Danielle, and her eight-month-old grandson, Dan, live in Israel, and although no one will give her travel insurance and she isn’t supposed to fly, she has recently returned from a visit.

“I’d risk everything to develop a relationship with him,” the proud grandma admits. Her infectious smile returns as she says: “When my beautiful Dan was born, suddenly I wasn’t interested in mountains - I just wanted to be with him. That’s my mountain now.” 

Do you have an inspirational story to share? Tell us about it here.

 CREDIT: AREMEDIASYNDICATION.COM.AU/ MAGAZINEFEATURES.CO.ZA

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