Home care client recalls Black Hawk airlift during bushfire crisis

Ken Cooper Leanne 500

‘I keep telling myself I got through this because I’m tough, tough as an old boot. But I’d be dead without them.’

There’s no doubt Ken Cooper, 73, of Mallacoota, is tough.

Anyone who is evacuated from his home as a bushfire approaches, sits for 17 hours in a chair at the Community Hall while battling the symptoms of terminal illness and then is airlifted by helicopter to hospital in another town, staying mostly alone for nearly two months, is tough.

At the same time, the support he received from HammondCare At Home care staff – before, during and after the crisis – has made all the difference.

Ken recalls that on December 31, 2019, “the ambulance turned up at home about 5pm, they told me the fire was two streets away and they needed to get me out of there. They took me down to the Community Hall and there were thousands of people milling around.lorrikeet in fire 580

“I was surrounded by people, smoke, flashing lights – it was horrific. I spent from 6pm until 11am the next morning sitting in a chair. And for a person with permanent diarrhoea due to bowel cancer, that was a real pain in the arse," Ken says, with typical humour.

“Eventually the officials came around and said I should be in hospital. I was taken to the medical centre and after being given a change of clothes from the St Peter’s Church op shop next door – I had no other possessions – I was taken by another ambulance to be air-lifted on the first flight out by Black Hawk helicopter, ending up in Sale Hospital.”ken thank you card 580

During this time, his family who live in other parts of Australia, lost track of Ken’s whereabouts and were very concerned for his wellbeing. Care worker Leanne Wicks was able to reassure them about his evacuation.

She also rang Ken in Sale most days, realising that he was doing it tough, being a long way from home, with no way to return as the roads were closed for weeks.

It was a difficult time for Ken, as he was not well-known to local staff in Sale, there was some confusion about his health needs and the promised repatriation home kept being delayed.

One saving grace was the gift of an easel and some art materials so he could indulge his love of drawing and painting. “I always say if it’s got a flat surface, paint it. I even sold two paintings while I was down there!”

Although Leanne, herself, had evacuated for a period of time, when Ken finally returned from Sale after seven weeks, she had the power reconnected and house cleaned, including clearing the fridge of food that had seen better days.

HammondCare at-home services resumed for Ken and despite having bowel cancer, a heart condition, emphysema, asthma, diabetes and arthritis, he is being supported to live at home independently.

More challenges to come

But the adventure wasn’t over. While Ken’s unit had been affected by fire – cracked windows and the garage contents ember damaged – the adjoining unit had been destroyed. Eventually, it was decided that Ken would need to relocate for safety.

Once again, the HammondCare team has helped make this move a success.

“Great stuff from HammondCare, I’d be dead without them. They are always right there when needed, in every aspect,” Ken said. “Leanne and the team are always asking me, ‘What do you need? Can we do this for you?’ They don’t wait for me to ask.”

Ken continues to draw and paint and has even inspired care worker Leanne to take up lessons. He has done public art works around Mallacoota – some which did not survive the fires – and is well known for his 29 years presenting a local radio program.

Kindness in recovery

Asked about how the town is going after the devastating bushfires, Ken says people are "sad".

“I can read between the lines and see the sadness in their eyes. Despite that, we are still battling, trying like hell to get on with it.”

During the night in the evacuation centre, amidst the smoke, blackness and roaring of fires, sirens and trucks, a woman who knew Ken knelt down next to him, and thinking that he had lost his house, pressed $100 into his hand, to keep him going. She had lost everything herself.

In the same way, Ken, despite his own challenges, has begun giving things away to support others. To a fellow radio presenter who lost all his music and everything else in the fires, Ken gave a much-appreciated box of CDs. And he’s giving away other items when he sees a need.

Find out more about HammondCare At Home services or click here if you are interested in joining the team.

Captions: 1. Ken Cooper and Community Care Worker Leanne Wicks. 2. Ken's painting of a Mallacoota Lorrikeet escaping the fire. 3. A thank you card to Ken.