The last place Josh Komen imagined meeting the love of his life was on a plane heading to post-cancer treatment. But when the Greymouth lad chatted to friendly Swiss-born Sibille Schmid, sparks flew. Then he found out she was an oncology nurse and the rest was history.
However, this love story had a difficult beginning for Josh, 31, who is grateful to be alive. In 2013, the talented sportsman was preparing to represent New Zealand in running at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, training twice a day and being coached by Kiwi running legend Dave McKenzie. But two weeks after collapsing during a race, Josh was admitted to hospital and was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia.
"I was brought up as a strong man and had to learn how to cry," tells Josh, who has published a memoir of his cancer ordeal called The Wind at my Back. "I was so angry about having cancer after being so fit that I nearly attempted to take my life because I was so depressed."
It was Josh's mum Julie, 54, who saved him from a possible suicide. "She went out one night and I was about to do it, but I saw her cup of tea and thought of how much she loved me," explains Josh. "I decided to treat my cancer like a running race. I visualised myself running and finishing the job, and said I'd get out of there and follow some of my dreams."
After undergoing gruelling chemotherapy, Josh triumphed against the cancer. He spent four months surfing and six months after his last round of chemo, he was climbing the 5791m trek to Everest Base Camp with a friend.
"It was terribly hard and I got sick going up," Josh recalls.
"My mate wanted to take my backpack and I fought him away! My mentality is that if you start a job, you finish it! It was a fantastic moment."
Josh then travelled to East Asia, where he fell in love with a German girl, who he continued a long-distance relationship with after returning home to complete a professional skydiving qualification.
"Doing that course was one of the happiest times of my life," smiles Josh. "I was jumping out of planes with great mates I'd met, up in the air with no rules."
But half a year after qualifying, he noticed purple spots on his hands. The cancer had returned. Doctors told Josh he'd need a stem cell transplant and worse – it could kill him.
"I knew it was serious this time, so I took my family skydiving for one last jump, which was kind of my way of saying goodbye to them."
While Josh underwent more chemo and prepared for the transplant, his then-girlfriend came to New Zealand to support him during the sickest stage of his life. When his weak immune system came under attack from infection, Josh was placed on life support for 10 days. Two weeks later, he had a successful transplant.
Although it amazingly rid him of the cancer, Josh contracted graft-versus-host disease (GVHD). He explains, "It's basically a graft infection that glued my whole body together. I was like a tin man."
Eventually, after a year in hospital and a relationship break-up, Josh was diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia – nicknamed "the suicide disease" because of the unbearable pain it causes to the facial nerve responsible for sensation.
"About a quarter of people diagnosed with it end their own lives. I was on every pain medication you can think of and would just scream."
When the episodes eventually settled, doctors focused on fixing Josh's worsening GVHD and recommended he have treatment in Melbourne. In April 2016, he started 18 months of visits to Australia, where heart attacks became another addition to his long list of health woes.
"I felt so lonely and like it was never-ending," recalls Josh, who plunged back into depression. But two years ago, on one of his flights to Melbourne, fate introduced him to Sibille, 29.
"We chatted, but I didn't tell her I was getting treatment until I found out she was an oncology nurse back in Switzerland," smiles Josh, who invited Sibille to go and watch his treatment.
However, for the first time, Josh's treatment was delayed the day Sibille showed up, so the pair had hours to fill together. They went to markets, grabbed coffee and shared lunch. Then on their last day together, during an ice-cream date, they shared a kiss.
"We just connected. She's a beautiful soul," Josh says.
"Every day is a celebration of being alive and she really understands that as a cancer nurse."
Now, the besotted couple live together in Greymouth. His GVHD is stable and excitingly, Sibille said yes when Josh proposed atop Switzerland's Jungfraujoch glacier last month.
"Sibille gave me purpose, faith and love," Josh beams.
"Love is always there if you just keep continuing."
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