By Don Wallace
The finales of fashion shows in Milan and New York often end with the designers joining the models in a triumphant victory lap on the runway. Well, at HONOLULU Fashion Week, we do things a little differently—inviting a troupe of special guests, “Beautiful Survivors” of serious, life-changing illnesses and trauma, to showcase their extraordinary courage and flair by taking to the catwalk. This year’s wind-up: Saturday, Nov. 10 at 8 p.m.
The 17 beautiful survivors will take the stage in outfits chosen by New York fashion legend Dean Christopher from Kāhala Mall clothiers. As the models, they’ll have enjoyed the services of professional hair and makeup stylists. And their emcee won’t be a stranger to what they’ve gone through. One of the world’s top ocean photographers and a HONOLULU contributor, Mike Coots lost a leg to a shark in a Kaua’i attack.
For Punahele Carnate, 35, the show is about making a statement—twice. Born with a heart condition that led to congestive heart failure, she was forced to retire from teaching for health reasons in 2001. Facing a transplant down the road, Punahele says she lives by a philosophy. Told at 17 she could never have children, “My thing is making moments into memories.”
At HONOLULU Fashion Week, she’ll make a big one. She intends to take to the runway with her fellow model, and 7-year-old son, Jeremiah. After Carnate and her husband married, they decided to adopt a Hawai‘i child if possible. Six years passed. “Then someone called us about a little Down syndrome boy we could care for and perhaps foster. We knew once we took him in that he was our baby: ‘That’s going to be our son.’ We knew he had medical issues, too.”
Then 6 months old, Jeremiah had been born with two holes in his heart. “I knew I could relate, and, hopefully, mother him.”
As a cardiac nurse, Lehneer Tactacan works daily so that those having heart trouble can continue making memories. From Kalihi and Waipahu, the Damien Memorial graduate joined Straub Clinic in 2000 straight out of college. And yet, in December 2009, the then-38-year-old father of three boys (now four) missed the classic signs of a heart attack in progress while at jiu-jitsu practice.
“My partner and I had stopped grappling to walk back to the middle of the mat,” says Tactacan. “Suddenly I was short of breath, feeling nauseated. ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘I guess I overdid it today.’”
He headed to the bathroom, thinking if he could throw up he’d feel better. “As I was leaning over the toilet, I got so dizzy I banged my head on the tank,” he recalls. “”Whoa,’ he remembers thinking. ‘This is pretty serious. If you faint in the restroom, no one is going to find you.‘ So I crawled my way out to the hallway.”
A teammate who was a paramedic checked his symptoms. Once he noticed Tactacan clutching his left shoulder, that did it. Minutes later the cardiac nurse was on his way to Straub—“on the receiving end of treatment.” His cardiologist, Dr. Wesley Kai, was someone he’d assisted many times over eight years. Finding a full blockage in one of Tactacan’s vessels, Kai inserted a stent. But within 10 minutes the stent was leaking, so Tactacan was wheeled back into the operating room for a second stent.
“The whole time, the people who took care of me were my co-workers,” he says. Today, he still works with Dr. Kai on occasion, and takes every opportunity to advise people that there’s plenty of life after a heart attack. “I started working out after two months. Eight years later, I’m feeling good.”
Both Punahele Carnate and Lehneer Tactacan are strong believers in taking charge of your own health. “Get educated about your health,” says Carnate, who says her family never discussed her childhood cardiac condition with her. “Take a notebook and pen when you see your doctor and come prepared with questions.” Tactacan concurs, adding, “If you pay insurance, a little goes each week to insurance, right? So use it a little bit. Go to a doctor, get checked out. Maybe it is heartburn.”
Both will also take to the runway as part of a conscious decision to live life to its fullest. “I am a miracle,” says Carnate. “Every day.” While looking forward to the Beautiful Survivors experience, she already has indelible memories of watching Dean Christopher dress Jeremiah for the show. “I would be OK with me not being in it at all,” she says, “just to see Jeremiah walk. He’s so adorable!”