Firefighter Gavin Mason affected by rare autoimmune disease targets Coast to Coast
Wanaka multisporter, cyclist and Queenstown Airport Fire Rescue firefighter Gavin Mason, who went from being one of the fittest firefighters in New Zealand to barely being able to walk, now has February’s Kathmandu Coast to Coast in his sights.
Mason was diagnosed with the rare autoimmune disease Guillain-Barre syndrome in late May and was quickly transferred from his Central Otago home to Dunedin hospital. “It developed over three or four days while I was away training for work, Mason said. “The first symptoms I noticed was the pain in the mid thoracic region of my back during the middle of the night, then the next day I had pins and needles and a tingling sensation down both the back of my legs for most of the day.”
He went from finishing fourth in the tough Firefighter Sky Tower Stair Challenge in Auckland a few weeks earlier to barely being about to walk after the disease, which affects between 40 and 80 New Zealanders each year, attacked his body.
“It wasn't so much in shock at first as I assumed it was a slight injury form the physical training we had been doing for work, so just assumed I had pinched a nerve or something. Once I understood what it was I just had to take it head on and focus on the solution or treatment and not so much what was the immediate presentation of symptoms.”
Mason lost about 80 per cent of the strength in his legs and undertook five courses of immunoglobulin blood treatment as part of his journey to regain his health. “I could still take myself to the toilet and shower the whole time so mentally that was a huge thing to hang onto in terms of maintaining a positive outlook in the bigger picture of things. It can be a fatal condition but most people with the syndrome will make a complete recovery.”
Guillain-Barré can affect anyone although Mason says men are more commonly affected than women and its incidence increases with age and it is most common in those aged between 50 and 74 years of age.
Once treatment was underway Mason set in place optimistic, realistic and then worst case time frames for getting to minor achievements. “Once progress was being made I set bigger goals like getting home. The support from a large number of people while I was in hospital was truly overwhelming and very humbling.”
Goal setting has always been part of Mason’s working and personal life, pointing out that “adding in goals or ambitions of sporting events to me is the equivalent of a normally active person wanting to walk around the block or go for a 30 minute run.”
Having participated in a number of multi-sport and cycling events Mason has set his sights for measuring a return to normality by doing what he has always done, compete in some events with a return to the Kathmandu Coast to Coast in February a key goal.
Race Director Richard Ussher offered Mason an entry to the event through its Kathmandu Coast to Coast Academy, a programme designed to support a range of different initiatives to foster participation in the event.
“Once Richard offered an entry I thought wow cool, and then, ok can I really do this? After a week of pondering and weighing up the pros and cons on top of making some good gains in recovery I thought why the hell not.”
Mason plans to also use his participation in the Kathmandu Coast to Coast to help create a greater awareness of Guillain-Barre syndrome and is looking forward to doing the two day event as it’s “a lot more fun with the whole atmosphere and camping at Klondyke corner.”
“It’s such a special event. The sense of achievement of doing your first event and running down the beach at the finish is very empowering and installs a good amount of confidence in what you can achieve in life if you put the time and effort in. When you meet people who have been to the Olympics yet you see them taking on the Coast to Coast as they see it as one of the great personal achievements, it just reaffirms how awesome the challenge of it is. I simply just want to finish it and do it with a smile and enjoy the adventure along the way.”
Photo credit: photo supplied by Gavin Mason
Wanaka’s Gavin Mason competing in last year’s NZ Club Nationals held in Central Otago