As It Happens

A Canadian couple was sailing the world when the pandemic hit, and she was diagnosed with cancer

It wasn't how Larry and Angela Hunter imagined the final leg of their decades-long adventure of sailing around the world.

They were stuck in Saint Helena and their insurance provider wouldn't send them home

Angela and Larry Hunter have been sailing around the world for more than two decades, but their final journey was cut short when Angela was diagnosed with plasma cell leukemia. (Submitted by Celeste Large )

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It wasn't how Larry and Angela Hunter imagined the final leg of their decades-long journey around the world.  

The Canadian couple had been sailing the globe for 22 years. Their daughter Celeste Large joined them in February in South Africa for what was supposed to be their final ocean crossing as they headed back home to Ontario.

But then, COVID-19 hit and countries started closing their borders.  And then Angela got sick. 

The last few months have been a whirlwind for the family as they struggled to get Angela safely home to Canada so she could seek treatment for a rare form of blood cancer. Now she's home recovering from surgery, while her daughter is still out at sea, trying to make it back to her family. 

"I know in a couple of months, we'll be back together again, taking care of each other," Mike Large, Celeste's husband and Angela's son-in-law, As It Happens host Carol Off from his home in Georgetown, Ont., on Friday.

"Because, you know, we have a strong, strong family."

Living on the move, outside the box

Angela says she always knew she and her husband would not have a conventional retirement. 

"Larry and I made a vow when we got married in 1971 that we wouldn't work for anyone past the age of 50, as life that is dictated by society is no life at all. Working to boost the bottom line of corporations is a soul destroying task that sucks the life right out of you," she told As It Happens on Monday.

"We realized earlier on that our mental and physical health was at risk and made the decision that we needed to do something different, to get out of the 'box' that we taught our daughters never to let define them, and start to live life as it's meant to be lived."

The couple sold their home in 1998, bought a sailboat and hit the water. (Submitted by Celeste Large)

So in 1998, they put their house up for sale, bought a boat and set off for what they thought would be a one-year Caribbean adventure. 

Instead, they kept travelling, making regular sailing trips home to attend Mike and Celeste's wedding and meet their grandchildren. Then in 2003, they crossed the Panama Canal to see the rest of the world.

The couple has since visited 62 countries and traversed more than 75,000 nautical miles, Angela said. 

"It's a freedom that's slowly disappearing, and we enjoyed it," Angela said. "Not only the sailing, but we lived with different cultures, we lived with different people for months at a time and learned their cultures, learned their languages, learned their religions, and it was just a mind-blowing experience."

A pandemic, and then a diagnosis 

Shortly after Celeste joined them in Capetown, South Africa, the pandemic hit.

"They were pretty much told that if they didn't leave, the borders would be getting shut down and they would be stuck in Africa," Mike said. 

So the trio set sail instead for Saint Helena, a small island on the South Atlantic Ocean where the pandemic had not yet hit hard.

They self-isolated for two weeks, and then decided to make the most of their time on the beautiful tropical island. But in mid-May, Angela started to feel weak and out of breath.

Angela says their 22 years of travel has been an eye-opening experience. (Submitted by Celeste Large)

"They knew that she had to go to hospital, that they thought there was something wrong," said Mike. 

After some blood work and a bone marrow test, Angela was diagnosed with plasma cell leukemia, a very rare and aggressive form of blood cancer.

"It was heartbreaking, really," she said. 

Trying to get home 

The health-care workers in Saint Helena sprung into action. 

"They were absolutely amazing. They took my parents [in law] and they took great care of them," Mike said. "They were putting the word out there because they needed fresh blood for her for her blood transfusions."

Several locals donated blood for Angela, as did Celeste. But her doctors agreed that resources on Saint Helena were scarce, and Angela needed to get back to Canada where she could get the long-term care she needed.

Celeste and Mike Large worked for months to get Celeste's mother home to Canada for cancer treatment. (Submitted by Celeste Large )

The family's insurance provider, however, disagreed. They wanted her to go to Johannesburg. But South Africa's borders were shut as the country dealt with a coronavirus outbreak of its own. 

"[Celeste] spent hours and hours on the phone with the insurance company trying to get her [mom] evacuated back home as soon as possible," Mike said.

"And they didn't care that it was COVID times, that there was all kinds of issues going on in Johannesburg — they just want to get her to the nearest hospital."

Paying out of pocket 

Meanwhile, Angela's health was deteriorating.

"Celeste was sending us pictures and stuff of her back on the island, and we could really see she was going downhill quickly," Mike said.

So he, Celeste, and Celeste's sister pooled their resources and paid to have Angela medevaced home with a private company.

"That's the way our daughters were brought up and that's the way our family is," Angela said. "We're not just parents and siblings and children and spouses — we're all really good friends."

But the small plane, jam packed with medical personnel and equipment, couldn't take them all. Angela and Larry arrived Toronto on June 29, but Celeste stayed behind.

"It was extremely hard, especially not knowing when countries were going to open up to allow her to leave," Angela said.

Angela is now recovering from surgery at home in Georgetown with her son-in-law, and said she is responding well to treatment — something she credits to a healthy life of travelling. 

"I'm hoping in time, being as positive as I am and being a fighter like I am, that I can beat this for awhile," she said. 

Celeste, meanwhile, is in the South Atlantic Ocean, making the final leg of her parents' journey without them.

"I'm so excited for her that she's able to do it. It's a little disappointing for Larry and I that we couldn't, but you deal with what comes your way as best you can," Angela said.

The family hired a sailing instructor to accompany Celeste for the journey home. Depending on the weather, she should arrive in November, by which time she'll be an avid sailor like her parents.

Mike says when his wife first set off for South Africa, he thought she'd be gone for three months max. 

"By the time she's home, it's going to be almost nine months, but we're getting through it," he said. "Our main focus right now is to get [her] home safe and to make sure our mother-in-law, our mom, is taken care of."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Mike Large produced by Katie Geleff. 

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