Climbing for Bonnie

In May 2023, Good On Ya Mate8 MinutesBy Shannon WilliamsJune 23, 2023

A cause close to home. Transport sector stalwart Harley Baker is stepping up, taking on the Firefighter Sky Tower Stair Challenge to raise funds for Leukemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand.

Eight Kiwis a day are diagnosed with a blood cancer or a related blood condition. It can affect anyone at any age and at any time in life. The cancer journey is overwhelmingly difficult for patients and their whanau, and it’s a journey Harley knows well.

Harley’s transport career kicked off back in the 1990s when he started with Mainland Products, joining its transport division Fridge Tranz under John Bryant, driving a six-wheeler Isuzu. He then headed for the United States for an eight-month stint driving 18-wheelers from coast to coast, which Harley describes as a childhood dream.

“The lingo used on the CB, the landscapes, the highways, all that kind of stuff was exactly like it was in those movies I watched as a kid. It was everything that I ever dreamed of,” he says.

After the tragic events of 9/11 cut Harley’s American dream short, he returned to New Zealand, where he met his now wife Bonnie. After numerous stints back behind the wheel, some sales repping and starting a cafe with Bonnie, Harley found himself delivering to Pak’nSave Kaitaia from Auckland in a Scania called Northern Lights, which he says was a dream truck and an awesome way to end his driving career. He then went on to be the national logistics manager for DGL and has since started a new role with GJ Weck in Patumahoe.

Harley in full firefighting gear.

The curveball
Harley married Bonnie in 2005, and they later welcomed boys Brandon and Matthew. In April 2014, Bonnie was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer, which starts in the body’s lymphatic system.

Over the next seven months, Bonnie underwent chemotherapy every three weeks, with many weeks in hospital, emergency call-outs, and some very hard times for her and the family. Doctors had grave fears for Bonnie’s survival due to the severity of her cancer.

“I’ve seen some pretty horrific things during my time on the road,” Harley says. “But nothing prepares you for when they say ‘cancer’.

“The determination from Bonnie, and everyone else to get her through this, played a big part in her recovery.

“Those little pep talks in the middle of the night – to say you can do this, to not come all this way to just give up… she pushed through. It really does test your ability to dig deep inside yourself and do what you can to help your loved one through the toughest part of their life.”

Bonnie came out the other side, her cancer treatment finished and everything headed in the right direction. Unfortunately, 18 months after her final treatment, the family was dealt another blow. Bonnie ended up back in hospital, diagnosed with chronic severe heart failure, and at best her heart was operating at 10%. She was given just seven days to live.

“As you can imagine, the journey that we had been on, to be told you’ve got a week to live… I still to this day don’t know how to describe that feeling,” Harley says.

Operating was not an option for Bonnie, but the doctors managed to repair some of the damage, and thankfully Bonnie is still here today, her heart still recovering.

“Once again, her determination kicked in. And once again, she defied the odds,” Harley says.

“She is one super-strong woman. She’s been to hell and back. She’s my hero.”

Fire and rescue teams in a previous Sky Tower climb (Photo: Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand..

The calling
During Bonnie’s cancer treatment, Harley had to call an ambulance twice, but because of where they live in Patumahoe, it was the fire brigade that turned up first, and as first responders, they worked on Bonnie until an ambulance arrived.

“Without our fire brigade, one, I would have been on my own during that time, and secondly, Bonnie might not be here,” Harley says.

“And that was my calling to join the fire brigade. It was a way I could give back to someone else who may be in the darkest part of their lives like we were when they turned up for Bonnie.”

As part of a group of nine from the Patumahoe Volunteer Fire Brigade, Harley will be taking on the Firefighter Sky Tower Stair Challenge to raise funds for Leukemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand. It’s no small feat. The Sky Tower has 51 flights of stairs, 1103 steps in total – a total climb of 328m.

Harley will be wearing full firefighting level 2 gear, including a breathing apparatus, the same gear used when entering a structural fire.

“There are nine of us from our brigade taking part this year. We’ve been running up the Hakarimata Summit Track in Ngaruawahia, as well as the DGL head office stairwell in Auckland City, which is 12 storeys high. If you do that five times, it’s 1200 steps,” he says.

“My goal is to make it to the top with air still in my cylinder and a good placing for my age group.”

Harley hopes the money he raises as part of the challenge will help those going through the same experience his family went through.

“Leukemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand need these funds to be able to continue the work they do. There are so many things that they do for cancer patients, and by raising as much money as I can, if it means someone will hopefully be able to receive the benefits of that money to be able to get through a pretty hard period of their lives, it’s just our way of giving back.

“I’ll give it 110%. If Bonnie can go through what she’s gone through, I can walk up some steps. You get to around the 900-stair mark, your body is hurting, your lungs are screaming, your heart feels like it wants to jump out of your chest, and I just tell myself, this is 20-30 minutes of pain versus the journey that cancer patients go through.

“It’s not a nice journey people go through, and if you can help someone, you just do it,” he says.