Features, Truckie Profiles

Courageous truckie gets back behind the wheel

Hers is an inspirational story of optimism and resilience. For Rachel Kriss, a 52-year-old grandmother from the Northern Rivers region of NSW, things couldn’t have been better – until a heartbreaking diagnosis saw it all come crashing down.

“My husband and I only got married in October 2022 before my diagnosis two months later. We had gone on our honeymoon and bought a new Mustang. We were living the dream – then boom!” she said.

Rachel and her newlywed husband Wayne Kriss had been doing FIFO work on the Snowy 2.0 Project in the Snowy Mountains. She was driving everything from rigids, to watercarts, tippers, loaders, diggers, rollers and Moxys.

She was inspired to get into trucking by her truckie dad. Images: Rachel Kriss

She had previously worked in the blistering heat at Marble Bar in WA carting iron ore and now found herself in one of the coldest areas carting snow.

“The Snowy is a fascinating place, working in a pristine natural environment and seeing all the animals, it’s stunning,” Rachel said.

The daughter of a truckie, Rachel says she was destined to follow in his footsteps. “As usual with many of us female truckies, my dad had his own trucking company. It was based in the Northern Rivers and he’d travel around Sydney, to Brisbane, out west and all over the place,” she said, adding that she’s been in and out of the industry for the past 20 years.

“When dad had his truck, I had kids and moved away. But when I came back, I decided to give it a crack. So I had a few lessons in the truck with dad. I went and got my HR licence about 10 years ago and had that for a couple of years, then I decided I wanted to beat my dad and get a licence he didn’t have – as we’ve always been very competitive with each other, so four years ago I got my MC, though I haven’t had a chance to use it yet.”

In December 2022, Rachel booked herself in for a check-up with her GP after experiencing a sharp pain in her ribs on her right side. “There were no other signs or anything but then the pain just became excruciating,” Rachel recalled.

“I thought it was just from getting in and out of the truck. It was my husband who said, let’s get home and get it checked.”

What they found was a 9.5cm tumour in the centre of her liver. “At first, they thought it was benign and said it’ll be fine, don’t worry about it. Then my surgeon said he wanted to do some biopsies. Before I even woke up, I was booked into Westmead Hospital.”

Rachel’s diagnosis came shortly after their wedding day. Image: Rachel Kriss

Rachel was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a rare and aggressive form of liver cancer. “It’s one of the most savage cancers you can get. It was already at stage four.”

Within two weeks, Rachel underwent surgery to remove the tumour – that was just over a year ago on January 23, 2023.

She said that everything just happened so quickly.

“There was the shock of it but there was no real time to sit and dwell on it. It was just get it done and hope you survive.

“I walked through the door not knowing if I would see my husband, parents, sons or grandkids again. I came out of surgery 14 hours later and all was well. They got the whole tumour out, so I lost 80 per cent of my liver – that’s as much as they can take – and my gall bladder. The surgeon said if they had found a spot anywhere else in the healthy liver tissue, the surgery wouldn’t have gone ahead as there would be no point,” she revealed.

But despite the surgery being successful, the next day Rachel got an infection and then spent the next 10 days in intensive care.

“I have no recollection of it. I was on five different drug ports. They put two drains in and I had to carry the surgical bags with me for about six months. I named them Bill and Ben. I had them with me almost up until I went back to work in August last year.”

Along with the physical scar – which she says stretches from her sternum, right down to her belly button and then across her hip – Rachel says the ordeal affected her mentally as well.

“My family was worried about me getting back to work too quickly but they just told me to do whatever I needed to do. I was starting to get mentally fatigued.

“It was a real mental game to get through that six months in hospital,” Rachel revealed.

“There were a lot of really dark times where I didn’t want to be on the planet anymore. Even though I went back to work early, I think it was great for my recovery. I got out of hospital in July and went back to work in the Snowy Mountains in the middle of August.”

The couple typically does two weeks on and one week off, but over Christmas decided to work right through for five weeks straight. 

“The alarm goes off at 3.45am. Depending which job we’re at, it can take one hour to an hour and 25 minutes to get to work. We have buses and they pick people up along the way. Our company puts us up in houses, because there’s not enough room on camp for everyone. It does mean you’re having to cook and do everything yourself, but there’s the bonus of having your own home away from home,” explained Rachel.

In the months following the surgery, Rachel also underwent chemotherapy. “I did six months of chemo while I was at work. That finished about three months ago. I lost a lot of my hair too. I had really long hair and was complaining to my son about losing it, so he said I should cut it off on my own terms, not on cancer’s terms.

Rachel and her husband Wayne Kriss do FIFO work on the Snowy 2.0 Project in the Snowy Mountains. Image: Rachel Kriss

“The support of my family has been incredible. My husband still had to go to work and still had to function, not knowing if I was going to live or die. People see me but you don’t see the family that has to keep going on. My mum and dad looked after me when I couldn’t move. And my work crew have been absolutely amazing.”

Along with the support of her family – including her husband, parents, two sons and five grandchildren – Rachel says her employer Leed Engineering was super supportive too.

“I never had to worry about not coming back to a job. They were always ringing, texting and checking up on me. I remember when I was at my lowest point, mum said to me, just think of a happy place back in that Moxy,” Rachel said.

“I was employed as a driver, so that’s what I went back to. I love the freedom of being in the truck, it makes me happy. I started on the Moxys and then progressed to the tipper, which is busy and I love being busy, it makes the day go quick. I’m also getting in and out of the truck, which has been good for the internal scarring too – moving the body the way I normally would.”

Now, Rachel says she’s trying to tick as much off her bucket list as she can.

“I’ve decided now is the time I want to just do what I want and what makes me feel good, and the company I work for is all for it. I’ve been there for two years, and they’re awesome.”

On top of her list is getting into road train work. “I’m really drawn into wanting to do that. I’ve driven them a little bit but not enough that I could claim it. I would be thrilled knowing I could give it a go,” she said.

“I’d prefer a mine site because that’s what I’m good at and I know. It’s somewhere I feel I’d be of great value. So long as I’m on a roster, I’d love to do FIFO work, where I could still drive back home.”

Also on the bucket list is travel. “My husband and I are hoping to go to Scotland and Greece at some point this year. I’ve got a Scottish background, so I went there when I was a kid. We’re planning to go over and catch up with some of the family. And with Greece, I’d love to visit the islands.”

And she wants to spend as much time as she can with her young grandchildren, who range from six months to seven years of age. “So even though they are young, they can look back and remember me.”

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