Bonding over a good cuppa

Gary Hamnett and Lin Keo have bonded over tragedy. Photo: Bruce Barnard

Gary Hamnett and Lin Keo have a unique friendship. It is a connection that doesn’t require words, just a helping hand through the hard times.

They first met over a shared love of coffee and chatter, which turned into a friendship of mutual respect. A friendship which Gary proclaims saved his life.

Lin, who featured in last week’s Weekend Sun, was Gary’s go-to barista down at The Dry Dock Café on Wharf Street. He used to visit every morning at 7am on the dot for his regular steaming brew and a chat.

As more coffee was passed over the counter, Gary learned about the hardships that Lin had dealt with growing up on the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 

He was inspired and honoured to have heard her story, but didn’t realise how important their interactions would become until he needed them the most.

“I was at a friend’s place having dinner and watching TV,” says Gary. “The friend looked at me and said ‘smile Gary’. I smiled and the left side of my face had dropped - I was having a stroke.”

The friend immediately called an ambulance and Gary was taken to Tauranga Hospital, where he was none responsive for five days.

“When they finally got me down to a ward my friend said to me ‘you’ve had a stroke on your left side and your arm, hand and fingers don’t work’.

“I was absolutely gutted. The first words that came out of my mouth were ‘just shoot me now’.”

He says we spent two frustrating months in hospital relearning how to move his body and walk down the corridor.

“When I was lying in bed it took 10 staff to get my legs over so I was on the edge of the bed,” he says. “Someone even had to wipe my bum.

“There’s two things you lose in hospital - one is dignity and the other is your underpants. You can pick both up at the front desk when you leave, which is certainly what I did.”

He says it was Lin’s story that kept him going through the anger and hard days.

“Lin’s story is harsh, and a stroke is nothing compared to what she went through,” says Gary. “There are people out there who have been through so much more than what I’m going through.

“Sometimes trauma and tragedy lift your spirits if you let them. I thought if Lin can do it, so can I.”

With a change of focus, Gary set a goal to walk out of the hospital doors in the space of two months. He achieved that goal not once, but twice.

“I actually had to walk out of the hospital twice that day, because my friend who was recording it for future reference had forgotten to press the record button. I had to walk back into the hospital, turn around and walk out again.”

Instead of going straight home, he says the first thing he did was get a decent coffee made by his favourite barista.

“The ladies at the hospital are lovely, but no one makes a coffee like Lin.”

Gary’s next goal is to walk up the Mount by June 10 - the date he had his stroke last year.

“I’ve got a damn good limp and my left arm kind of does what I want, but it’s a work in progress.”