When Professor Andreas Obermair was asked if he would commemorate the life of one of his former patients, Karen Lunney, during the Cherish Trek to Mt Everest Base Camp, he did not hesitate. “It would be an honour,” Andreas replied to her partner Dr Peter Best.
Bringing Karen Lunney’s extraordinary life into focus
Karen, or Karrie as she is affectionately called by Peter and family, had a rough start to life but created an extraordinary one for herself. She became a physicist and a mathematician, an environmental scientist, software designer, photographer, author and adventurous traveller. Not to mention, wife, mother and grandmother.
Karen and Peter first met while working in the electrical industry. Years later, when Peter was an academic at the Queensland University of Technology, Karen approached him to oversee her masters. “I knew that wasn’t possible,” he laughs, “Two weeks later we started seeing each other.” That was 30 years ago.
Together Peter and Karen started a successful environmental and risk management business, from which Karen later launched new software for the Australian energy industry before taking it overseas to Southern Africa. It was in Africa that Karen developed a taste and aptitude for wildlife photography.
“Karrie took incredible images,” Peter says. “I remember her taking three hours one night in Venice to capture the perfect shot of ripples on the water of a sheltered canal. I was her support crew, just happy to hold her suitcase!” After her cancer diagnosis, Karen trained herself in full-frame digital photography and won many Australian and international awards – the greatest of which was winning the International Photography Awards ‘Nature’ award in 2014 for one of her photographs of wildebeest struggling across a river in Kenya. The New York-based awards, known as the “Lucies”, are the photographic equivalent of the Oscars and put Karen in the front row of Carnegie Hall in New York with other winners.
Karen left no explicit instructions about how her family should farewell her, and so after she died, they decided to visit some of her favourite places around the world. “When I heard that Andreas was organising an expedition to Mt Everest Base Camp, I knew I had to ask him to honour Karrie’s life there,” Peter says. “It’s a place she would’ve loved. Nepal is a photographer’s Shangri-La and Andreas, who she had immense faith in, is the perfect person to conduct a small commemorative service there.”
It was while Karen and Peter were travelling that they knew something was amiss with Karen’s health. “When the Iceland volcano erupted in 2010, we had to extend our holiday,” Peter says. “Karrie grew more and more fatigued, and I started having to do things on my own. It was nothing specific, but we were worried.”
After their return to Australia, Karen went to the doctors. Eventually, they diagnosed Stage 3C ovarian cancer. “She was devastated but not surprised,” Peter explains. “In her life, she had experienced many medical conditions, including heart fibrillation, thyroid disease and endometriosis. Karrie developed a knack of only being down for three days before deciding she was getting on with what she could do. I remember when she saw Andreas for the first or second time, and he told her off for wearing black. Karrie laughed. After that, she became known for her colourful clothes.”
When she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, immediate surgery was very dangerous because the scans had also revealed a clot in Karen’s lungs, which required treatment first. She started with three months of chemotherapy and lung treatment. Then Andreas operated to remove Karen’s ovaries, Fallopian tubes, uterus and some lymph nodes, before Karen embarked on further chemotherapy, radiation and trial treatments.
The side-effects of Karen’s treatment would eventually curtail the pair’s travel adventures. But before this happened, they ventured to Hawaii, the United States, the United Kingdom and Iceland. Stowed away on a former Russian ‘science’ ship, they explored remote East Greenland for Karen’s 50th birthday. Then they boarded another Russian ship in Argentina to visit Antarctica with Karen’s son. Karen’s photography addiction also took them to the Galapagos, the upper Amazon, Ecuador and in later years to Bhutan, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and New Zealand.
At home in Brisbane, Karen participated in the CAN-003 and CAN-003X trials of CVAC led by an international team including Dr Jeff Goh. She was given the MUC-1 vaccine. “Karrie liked the idea of helping out medical research,” Peter explains. “She believed in the idea of immunology and felt she did well with the Keytruda treatment later on because her immune system had already been prepped. Unfortunately, after some initial success with a 50 per cent reduction in the size of some tumours, she would relapse.”
“My job,” Peter explains, “was to be the eternal optimist that science eventually produces the goods. I kept my eye on the latest advances in cancer research. I wrote to research directors to find out what might be possible for Karrie. This was before personalised medicine. No one in Brisbane could interpret her tumour profile, and combination drugs were not readily available.”
Cancer treatments, daily medication and maintenance drugs put increasing pressure on Karen’s system. She experienced painful bowel adhesions and blockages, including one that required emergency, life-saving surgery. In early 2018, Karen was hospitalised after having a regular replacement of ureteric stents. Two infections – kidney and Staphylococcus epidermidis (Staph) – competed for the doctors’ attention. It signalled the start of a low platelet regime and the end to chemotherapy and immunotherapy treatments.
Later in 2018, Karen was diagnosed with acute, treatment-related myeloid leukaemia. “She responded well to epigenetic drug treatment, but I think she knew the writing was on the wall,” Peter says. “Karrie was never one to discuss her own health. She talked with people who had experienced cancer. She spoke with her nurse niece, and she saw her Brisbane-based son every second day. But others did not realise the extent of her illness and were shocked by her death.”
In December 2018, after experiencing two major seizures at home, Karen was immediately taken to Princess Alexandra Hospital and later transferred to her favourite ward at Greenslopes Hospital for palliative care. Sometimes conscious, she blew kisses and smiled at Peter and her family by her side. Then early on 16 December, without regaining consciousness, Karen died quietly in her own way.
“In her photography, Karrie investigated what she called ‘liminal space’ – the place of transition, between what was and what’s to come,” Peter says. “It’s a place of possibility but also of waiting and not knowing. Some people found Karen’s photography quite confronting, but it was the way she felt about life. It’s the throw of the dice.”
Although Karen may have experienced a lot of ‘waiting and not knowing’ in her own life, she packed in a lot of ‘doing’ and beautifully captured the complexity of life in the process.