In Canvas magazine's The Year That column, Debbie Harwood, singer, musician recalls the year her life changed dramatically.

'I Thought It Was Curtains'


At 56 years old, in 2017, my heart failed … again. In 2009 (at 49) I'd had emergency mitral valve surgery and a hole in my heart darned. Post-surgery I haemorrhaged from my central line, with a young student nurse, her first day on the job, burying her elbow into my neck for 45 minutes and me fighting her off with every tiny bit of strength I could summon.

I woke up, one and a half hours before I should have, fully intubated and watching the panicked faces of the ICU nurses. A shambles for me emotionally - PTSD a constant companion, since. And then the machines screaming later that night – my new friend atrial fibrillation. What a day. Some nerves had been cut in the process of saving my life and so I clung to a sled where the only way was down. By 2016, I knew something was horribly wrong but couldn't rally the help. I was relatively young, smiley and could put on lipstick without looking in a mirror. The cardiologist was fooled and sent me home. I cried all the way knowing that I was absolutely munted.


And sure enough in February 2017 my heart hit its exasperated zenith and was failing severely – an undetected left ventricle failure meant I was sent home with a brochure on how to live with AF – but I couldn't breathe or walk and those smiling people on the cover with track pants and Nikes made the rhino in my chest feel like mockery. For the first time in my life I could not "push through".

Musicians have to turn up. We can never ring in and say, "Bad period Brian, can't come to work." Never. The show must go on, dead or not.

I had flown to Auckland to perform at a gig I had done for 25 years on the first Friday of every December with Hello Sailor, Jordan Luck, Hammond Gamble, Shona Laing, Peter Urlich and my beautiful band The Band of Gold.

My mind was yelling at my body to work. It wouldn't. I couldn't swing my legs out of the bed and I couldn't lift my arms and was trying to haul air into my lungs but couldn't keep abreast with the need. How so very much we take for granted. The first gig in 37 years that I hadn't made.

The body is one thing but the mind a whole other room of banging doors – over-active but no way through – bang, bang, bang. I nearly went crazy.

I had always believed I had no regrets but it wasn't until I thought it was curtains that I saw clearly. I was angry that I had avoided shows and recordings because I lacked confidence and was so afraid of judgment.

I was really mad that I hadn't been to Egypt – something I had wanted to do all my life. So while still at 26 per cent-left ventricle function I booked a bloody ticket and a few months later climbed on that big bird like a Michelin woman in a sunfrock. I dragged my oedema-sodden cankles around the sand in 37 degrees and saw the wonders of the world I had always dreamed of. I survived.

My heart function has improved enough that I now wear day clothes and put lippy on and seek laughter and love as much as I can. I have started taking bookings for gigs again – probably not the three-hour rock marathons I used to do – but singing is healing as is the roar of the crowd.

Written as told to Paul Little.