A s Chris Cairns’ wife Mel watched doctors prepare the Kiwi cricket legend for an emergency helicopter dash from their hometown of Canberra to a heart unit in Sydney last August, she didn’t know if she’d ever see her husband again.
“They didn’t know if he’d survive the flight,” she recalls, her voice cracking with emotion. “They’d done all they could for him, but they didn’t think his heart would make it. This was his last chance. It was the hardest moment.
“When the helicopter took off, everything hit me. I shut myself in a room and burst into tears, holding my phone and my breath until I got the call that they’d landed in Sydney. He was still alive.”
children, Isabel, 10, Noah, eight, and Angus, four, endured a “rollercoaster ride” as Chris underwent four open-heart operations, which led to massive organ failure, internal bleeding and ultimately a spinal stroke, leaving him paralysed from the waist down.
“I never left his side at the hospital in Canberra and wanted to go with him to Sydney, where I knew it was a possibility he could need a heart transplant,” she tells Woman’s Day.
“It was an impossible decision – if I went and Chris didn’t survive, I would be away from the children and have to quarantine for two weeks. They begged me not to go. Ultimately, the decision was taken out of my hands as, due to the COVID outbreak in Sydney, there was a strict no-visitors rule.”
Fast-forward four months and the pair are snuggled up on a bed at Mel’s parents’ home in Canberra, where they’re staying while Chris takes a break from rehab, revealing to us how his health crisis has only made their love stronger than ever and that while there’s a “tough, unknown road ahead”, they’re positive about the future.
“Death or brain damage were high on the agenda, so I’m so grateful to be here with Mel and the kids,” says the former Black Caps captain. “I’m in a wheelchair, which is life-changing, but I’m alive. It could have been so much worse.”
As he faces gruelling rehabilitation to relearn how to stand and walk, Chris is delighted to report he can already feel some “flickering” in both his ankles and has “a good amount” of movement in his right leg. But there is a long way to go.
“I don’t know what’s coming, but I’m ready. No doctor has said I will never walk again. No doctor said I will. I get up and work at it six hours a day, doing everything to spark the nerves back up. Rehab can be boring as bats**t, but I know from sport I have that tenacity to keep trying. I’m not saying there aren’t dark moments, or times when I feel sad or frustrated, but Mel only lets me feel sorry for myself for a bit.”
Chris says his wife, a former top-level basketball player, has been his “secret weapon in everything I went through”.
He tells, “It happened to me physically, but we are both going through it mentally. I’ve no recollection of the first 10 days, whereas Mel lived every second knowing how close to death I was.
“Apparently, I was coherent at times, asking the football scores and trying to remember cricket tours I’d been on. When they lifted me on the helicopter, she says I told her, ‘Don’t worry – I’ve got this,’ but I don’t remember anything.
“We’re in this battle together. I’m incredibly lucky to have this unique woman by my side. She’s an unbelievably strong person with an incredible sense of loyalty and she’s a great mum. The sacrifice she’s making is something I’ll be eternally grateful for.”
The couple’s sense of humour has got them through their darkest days. “We’ve always had a lot of laughter in our relationship – actually, I’m funnier than Mel,” teases Chris. “She’s not that funny.”
Proving him wrong, Mel recalls a moment over Christmas when she noticed their dog was about to escape. “I shouted, ‘Quick, Chris, run and shut the gate!’ There was an awkward moment of silence, then everyone burst into laughter.”
She adds that the kids have quickly adapted to their new normal. “They’re just so happy to have their dad around and they’re so attentive to him. They’re glass-half-full people too, with Isabel even remarking that now we get all the great parking spaces!”
Chris says the most frustrating aspect is having to rely on Mel for everything – from packing the car to going to the toilet. She even had to move house on her own the day after he was flown to Sydney as they’d already planned the shift.
“We did take marriage vows ‘in sickness and in health, for better or worse’, but I never thought that included Mel dealing with me pooing myself!” he quips, adding that their intimacy has also been affected.
“Like my bladder and bowel, sex is impacted for now. We’ve had a go and had intimate moments, which are different but still good. There’s stuff you can do in that department and sex therapists at the hospital are helpful.”
Mel laughs, “I had to remind him, ‘Chris, let’s take it easy – you almost died four times!’ But I’m not worried. Our life will still be fulfilling. Nothing makes you realise how much you love someone until you nearly lose them.
“For Chris to show vulnerability and to allow me to help is special. I admire how open he is about things like his bladder and bowel regime because no one talks about it. It’s taboo, but it’s a daily reality for many people. We’d love to normalise it more.”
Since 2015, Mel and Chris have been living in Canberra, where she works as a consultant and he runs SmartSportz, which produces virtual sport. Apart from cricket injuries, Chris had no major health issues before, although he’s always taken medication for high blood pressure. Doctors are investigating a cause of the sudden aortic tear, says Mel.
“They’ve sent parts of his heart for tests in Istanbul and Edinburgh. It’s an extremely rare event. It can be genetic, but we think it was a combination of blood pressure, stress, work and having three young kids without ever taking a break. Basically, being a 51-year-old man who thinks he’s invincible.”
On that fateful day back in August, Chris started to feel “foggy” while dropping the kids off at school, which is when doctors think the tear happened.
“I went home to sleep – probably not the textbook thing you should do,” he muses. “I tried to get up and collapsed. I managed to call Mel but was incoherent. She raced me to hospital. My blood pressure was dangerously low and all hell broke loose. That’s the last thing I remember until I woke up in Sydney, four open-heart surgeries later!”
Mel continues, “Chris would’ve been in serious trouble if he hadn’t been so quickly diagnosed. The mortality rate for aortic dissection is high and it’s often not picked up as it can mirror a heart attack.”
Chris clung on to life while “a litany of medical things that could go wrong did go wrong”, adds Mel. “One minute, he was out of the woods, then he’d go back downhill. It came in waves like that for days.
“After they repaired the aortic dissection, he had internal bleeding so needed a second open-heart surgery. Days later, he had major organ failure. That’s when they called the heart transplant unit in
St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney.
“Mum took the kids. We told them Dad was sick, but not in too much detail. When Chris landed in Sydney, the media were waiting. Isabel then asked me what ‘gravely ill’ meant as kids at school read
it on social media.”
Surgeons saved Chris’ heart by grafting veins from his legs. He then had further bleeding and required one last operation. Along the way, he suffered a spinal stroke. He woke up in ICU with tubes down his throat and no idea what was going on.
“I was drugged up to the eyeballs, hooked up to multiple machines,” recalls Chris. “My legs felt 200kg each and I wouldn’t let anyone touch them – it was like they were on fire. An MRI scan revealed the stroke.”
Back home, Mel was simply ecstatic her husband had survived. She says, “Spinal strokes are incredibly rare – 1% of all strokes – so when I asked what the prognosis was, they said there wasn’t a lot of research to base it on.”
The nerves in the back of Chris’ legs are currently paralysed and it’s unknown whether they’ll “turn back on”, but after his holiday break, he’ll return to rehab.
“It might be weeks, months, years or never. I might reach a fork in the road when I accept life in a wheelchair and if that’s what it is, I still have lots to be thankful for. I’m going to give it everything.”
Chris and Mel have both been buoyed by endless support from all over the world. “We’ve had so many messages,” he grins. “Fans telling us what a particular match meant or sending clippings from the ’90s, which the kids loved – they didn’t know I played cricket!
“The New Zealand Cricket Players Association has been incredible. We had an amazing personal letter from the New Zealand Spinal Trust recognising things I might be feeling. The ‘kia kaha’s from back home are humbling.”
And the ordeal has given the family a new perspective.
“We want to make more memories because time is the thing you can’t get back – the kids’ sports and the little trips we go on,” shares Mel. “We’ve stopped sweating small stuff. At New Year, we went to watch the fireworks even though it was an effort getting out and pushing the chair on the grass.
“When we saw the sky light up, together as a family again – the first time our youngest had seen fireworks because of COVID – it was magic.
“Whatever happens, we’ll keep making magic. You can have all the material things in the world, but family and love are everything.”