Holly Brisley's near-death crisis

New Idea

With an oxygen mask strapped over her face, two men carried Holly down the mountain to the next base camp because she was still too weak to walk.

Beautiful TV star Holly Brisley still wells with emotion as she recalls her near-death crisis on the summit of Africa’s tallest and most famous mountain, Mt Kilimanjaro, during a charity climb last month.

‘There was a moment during the height of that ordeal when things seemed so bad, my nightmare was I’d never make if off that spectacular mountain alive,’ confides the former Home and Away star in an exclusive interview at her Sydney beachside apartment.
‘I really feared I would never see my husband or our 13-month-old baby boy again.’

Holly, 32, says the drama unfolded five days into the exhilarating trek, which she was doing to help raise funds for the Humpty Dumpty Foundation – a charity close to her heart that helps sick kids.

Sickness strikes
‘There were about 20 of us on the climb, including two-time Olympic athlete Jane Flemming. We’d all been in serious fitness training for months to ready ourselves for the difficult and possibly dangerous climb to the peak,’ explains Holly, as she cuddles up on her couch at home with her husband of nearly five years, marketing executive Paul Ford, and their adorable son Levi.

‘The journey up was incredible, from the rainforest at the base to this amazing lunar-type landscape thousands of metres up. It was surreal. The immense beauty of Mt Kilimanjaro is near impossible to describe. You’re sleeping above the clouds, it’s incredible.

‘But as we climbed higher, I began to feel progressively unwell,’ she says. ‘It was weird – the headaches, general lethargy, dizziness. Then I began vomiting. My face and limbs began to swell and felt very painful. It was like I’d been punched in the face.’

At first Holly thought she was suffering from a general altitude sickness, which is common among climbers ascending above 2400 metres. By this point Holly and her colleagues were at camp more than 4600 metres up and trekking Mt Kilimanjaro’s famous Lemosho route.

‘Jane had the most awful experience,’ Holly reveals. ‘She suffered a really bad bout of altitude sickness and, at one point, was in the foetal position. The remedy is to rest and acclimatise. Jane did and recovered remarkably well. So that’s what I tried to do. But it turns out I was suffering an unpredictable and, if untreated, potentially deadly illness called high altitude pulmonary edema [HAPE].’

Holly says she’s ready for another adventure and would love to trek the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru.

Going downhill
Dr Andrew Peacock, an Australian medical specialist in emergency and altitude illness who was supervising Holly’s expedition, explains how her illness could have proven fatal.

‘Holly was in a bad way,’ he says. ‘Her body’s oxygen saturation was low, her heart was racing and she’d become very fatigued, was short of breath, unsteady on her feet to the point of near collapse and had developed a nasty cough due to fluid on the lungs. There was the real danger that if she continued to climb she could die. HAPE afflicts at random, no matter your fitness level, and Holly was just unlucky to be stricken.’

Holly says she was felled by the full force of the illness the day before the final climb to the top. The actress was so weak she had to be carried to the medical tent where she was immediately put on oxygen and supervised by Dr Peacock throughout the night, before being evacuated down the mountain the next morning.

‘Before the medication stabilised my heart and lungs, I was panic-stricken,’ Holly says. ‘It was hard to breathe. My heart was pounding so hard I thought I was having a heart attack. Horrible thoughts raced through my mind that I’d never see my family again. I was a welter of tears and emotion.

‘The whole situation was so overwhelming I remember bursting into tears and wanting to speak with my husband Paul. We’d barely had any contact as mobile phone reception is near to nil up there, so I was able to call him from the satellite phone. To hear his voice and when he told me Levi’s face had just lit up when he heard my voice on the phone, I lost it. I bawled my eyes out and was truly choked with emotion.

‘The climb was incredible – it certainly instilled a sense of adventure I’d never felt before,’ Holly adds. ‘Mt Kilimanjaro is awesome in every sense, you certainly live in the moment and what I went through was certainly life-changing. My priorities are now different. Issues that used to irritate or create concern now don’t. The love of my family is even more important.’

Back in the arms of her family, Holly has a new lease on life.

Looking forward
While Holly admits she’s still not feeling 100 per cent, she hopes she will be well enough to return to work soon.
‘I’ll be right in a few weeks, but for now I’m just taking it easy – my lungs are still a little fragile,’ she explains.

‘I’m looking forward to getting back to work for a while. But then being a mum has been such a buzz, Paul and I are talking about expanding our family in the future.’

By: Craig Bennett
Photos: Nigel Wright and Andrew Peacock