Karin's Story

As a surfer and survival teacher Karin has learnt to manage her life-threatening health-challenges.

5 minute short film 

Meet Karin in an interview captured by Doctor Asha Burkett in her winter home in remote Western Australia in 2017.

Since the short-film above, the situation has changed. Overall, Karin's situation has improved through treatments and better understanding of the illness. A few statements can now be explained better, but the interview still gives a good overview.

The purpose of this website is to explain to people who are in contact with Karin what is going on in her life. One of the hardest things to explain are the internal changes in Karin's body. Visible to her environment is only when Karin is not effected by major allergic reactions. Then Karin is a keen surfer and surf coach who lives her life on the beach. Only a few people know of her health struggles and hardly anyone knows how hard she worked to learn strategies and skills to survive every day.

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Karin is being treated by various specialists. Her health issues are officially documented and recognized. Several health professionals suspect that there is a connection with the strong immunosuppressive drugs prescribed to Karin’s father before she was conceived. Karin’s father was one of the first kidney transplant patients and therefore a human guinea pig for testing immunosuppressants and further drugs. 

The family history on her mother’s side shows allergies and hypersensitivity.

Since her childhood, Karin suffered from severe allergies. Over the years, more and more triggers for allergic reactions accumulated. The symptoms affect her organs such as lungs, stomach, intestines (pain, breathing difficulties, digestive problems), skin, mucous membranes and even the brain (difficulties speaking and even unconsciousness). At the age of 11, a specialist compared her lungs to the lungs of a 69-year-old chain smoker.

At the moment Karin reacts so hyperallergically that she can only eat around 12 foods.

 

In addition, she reacts to dust, mites, mould, pollen, wood, vapours and odours from washing detergents, cosmetic products, chemical and petrochemical products, such as petrol, motor oil, colour, varnishes, or heated plastics etc.

The biggest challenge for Karin is an allergy to bacteria which fester in fresh water and humidity. These bacteria also exist in Karin’s own sweat and on her skin causing allergic reactions. As a result, Karin can only wear a few loose garments. She has to soak new garments, wash fabrics with allergens, and dry all clothes and bedding she had on her body under strong UV light on a daily basis. 

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Born in Switzerland, Karin soon realised that whenever she traveled she felt better. She discovered how Australia was the place she could realise everything which made her feeling well and happy: surfing in warm saltwater all year round, living outdoors 24/7, and working outdoors away from civilisation with a very simple lifestyle. 

She also often reacts to objects that she has touched before and that have therefore been contaminated with bacteria. Only objects made of stainless steel, glass or stone can be easily cleaned and reused.

The reactions these days are so strong that Karin cannot live in closed rooms. She spends the major part of her time away from civilisation, usually in the open air, often only protected from wind, rain and sun by a simple shelter, a tarp or an umbrella. 

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If Karin stays in one place for too long, she turns reactive to whatever she is exposed to for too long. Australia offers totally different climate zones, which makes it possible for Karin to change her environment several times a year and stay in warm climate with enough UV light.

Karin was extremely lucky when wishing to move to Australia to get an internship with Outward Bound Australia,  one of the best known Outdoor Education Organisations. It meant she could work in Australia as an outdoor educator, teaching expeditioning, climbing, abseiling, canyoning, rafting, canoeing, kayaking, caving and more. Then a dream came true and Karin got sponsored to be trained as a Leader for the National Outdoor Leadership School, teaching mainly university students.

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In her work life she has led many expeditions lasting up to several weeks in the most remote wilderness places. Karin taught different outdoor sport activities, and survival skills, leadership, teamwork, first aid, cultural education and sustainability to high school students, apprentices, university students, and adults.

These extreme experiences in the wilderness provided countless opportunities for learning and growth in the area of survival and ways to overcome seemingly impossible challenges. This background helps Karin every day to cope with her own life-threatening challenges.

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Karin has worked closely with several Aboriginal teachers who have had a major impact on her understanding of life in nature and outdoor education.

The worsening of the allergy to the bacteria on her skin and in her sweat made outdoor education work impossible and led Karin to focus totally on her surf life in salt water.

The only place where Karin can truly recover is in the salt water. There she can wash off all allergens. The deep inhalation of the sea air and the rinsing of her mucous membranes with salt water when surfing are the best medication. 

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That’s why she kept training, reached the level 2 surfcoach accreditation and now works as a senior surfcoach and passes her skills and knowledge about the ocean on to mainly local students.

Karin loves her job but it is a big contrast to what she used to be able to do. At a young age back home in Switzerland, Karin was a middle school coordinator of 4 schools, now she works as a surfcoach on the beach but refuses any extra responsibility as the brain and body gets too effected by reactions.

On bad days Karin struggles to figure out how many boards to put on the trailer for her lesson as when effected by reactions her brain wouldn’t even allow her to do the simplest additions when on land. However, luckily in the salt water the reactions are not as strong as on land, so the safety management and coaching inside the water were never a problem, but mainly tasks away from the beach.

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The health challenge also effected her academic career strongly. In 2009 Karin was repeatedly encouraged by her supporting professors at Nathan University in Brisbane to finish her promising PHD project after completing her Masters degree in Education for Sustainability very successfully.

 

However, her allergy to paper and problems with electronics and computers made it impossible. 

Ten years ago Karin was a well paid teacher. She used to work for two of Australia’s best private schools and now after her health struggles she has, as a surf coach, one of the worst paid jobs in education.

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It makes Karin sad that she cannot use most of her qualifications and degrees and is not able to follow a career. This situation also creates financial stress. But she knows she simply would not survive living the usual lifestyle and work-life of people around her. Instead, she chose the surf and beach life and work that is the healthiest for her. She has worked hard to create this situation tailored to her survival needs and is very happy with her present life, her work environment and her social network.

Thanks to her surf environment, Karin has managed to survive. Not only the purifying and curing properties of the beach and the salt water help her body. But also the adrenaline released while surfing reliefs her pain.

 

And most importantly, the special power of the waves gives Karin the energy she needs to cope with her pain and challenges - SURFING TO SURVIVE!

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Karin's Supporters

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Amara
Hurst
Psychologist
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