I have had asthma from the age of five-years old. Each and every doctor I visited within Dublin all had the same statement to make. After examining me, they would say, “I am sorry to have to tell you that you have asthma and there is no known cure for it.”
I was too young at the time to realize the sentence that was being passed on me, but my mother knew only too well what it meant, as she knew several people suffering from the same complaint.
“Keep him warm,” they would tell my mother, “and try to not let him catch colds.”
I was given various prescriptions by different doctors; cough mixtures, cod liver oil and malt, Scots emulsion and linseed oil poultices applied as hot as I could bear it to my chest and back.
I have had my chest painted with iodine, I have had Vics vapor rub spread over my chest and throat, and applied to my nostrils; I have inhaled Potters Asthma Powder, which was placed on a saucer and ignited. I then inhaled the smoke! I have also smoked ‘asthma’ cigarettes, which could be purchased at the local chemist shop (the pharmacy).
My mother and her sister, took me to every hospital in Dublin in the hopes of finding a doctor who would provide the ‘magic’ answer to my complaint and come up with a cure. My mother took me to an herbalist, a Mrs. Craig, who lived on a farm in a place call Ballycouras, in county Dublin. This lady, had been recommended to my mother as a very competent herbalist with a good reputation. She tried to help me, but it was in vain.
A doctor in Sir Patrick Dunn’s hospital in Dublin suggested that I see a specialist for nose and throat. He thought maybe that my sinus might have something to do with it. He arranged an appointment for me to see the specialist, which I did. The result was a ‘workout’ on my nose. It was a terrible ordeal. I had a syringe pushed up my nose and a cleaning process took place. As I was just a boy, I was scared stiff. I thought my brains were being sucked out of me. This treatment also did nothing for my asthma.
When I was eight years of age, way back in 1932, the doctor wanted to cut out my tonsils; a very popular event in those days. Several of my school friends who had this operation told me that they got ice cream after the operation.
I wasn’t interested in the ice cream or having my tonsils cut and I strongly objected. I kicked up such a commotion when I got to the hospital, that my mother decided against it. To this day, I still have my tonsils intact, although a lot of my school friends had theirs cut out. I don’t know what good it did them. I suppose that the doctors had a good reason at the time; maybe it prevented infection. I never found out. I was very happy and content to hold onto mine and I think that I am no worse off for it.
When I was in my early teens, a doctor, who was a very good friend of my fathers, gave me a hypodermic syringe and a small bottle of adrenalin chloride and showed me how to inject it into the muscle of my arm whenever I got a severe attack.
I tried to show my mother how to give me the injection, as I found it very difficult with my hand shaking during the attack. My mother could not bring herself to do it. She was too scared. Consequently, I had to do the job myself which was not an easy matter, while gasping for breath and my hand would be shaking while trying to insert the needle into my arm.
As soon as I injected the fluid into my arm, I could feel the adrenalin creep up like a cold stream of ice water and across my neck and down into my lungs. The effect was almost instantaneous; as soon at it hit my chest, my breathing would return to normal.
Unfortunately after a few hours, the attack would return with a vengeance and I would have to give myself another injection. It became obvious to me that although the adrenalin gave me fast relief, it was a waste of time. What good was it to me if I had to keep on taking it every few hours. It was only giving me temporary relief. At times I thought I would just like to inject the whole bottle into me and be done with it. But I decided to stop using the adrenaline and let the attack take its course, which usually lasted for three or four days.
I could not eat anything during my asthma attacks. If I did I paid dearly for it as it made my breathing all the more difficult. I would satisfy myself with some tea and a slice of bread and butter until after the attack.
When the attack was over, I would be back to normal, until the next attack came along and hit me, which could be anything from a few weeks to a couple of months. I could never join in any sports at school because of my shortness of breath and unreliable health. I was so ill that my aunt thought I would die and she took out an insurance policy on me so she’d make some money of it.
When I was sixteen, in 1941, I was recommended to a Doctor Fitzpatrick who lived near Mount Argus chapel in Dublin. I was told that he was having some success in this treatment of asthma.
I decided to go and see him and find out if this was true. When I arrived, his receptionist said he was busy and couldn’t see me. I told her I was suffering terribly and she said “Wait here.’” She went to speak with him and he invited me in. He was a very nice man and kindly welcomed me. I asked him straight out if he could help me. After examining me he assured me that he could. I was happy at last that I had met a doctor with a positive attitude. This gave me new hope.
He gave me a course of injections over a period of six weeks, each injection getting larger that the proceeding one. The doctor warned me that after the first injection, I would get the ‘father and mother’ of an attack. I told him that I could take it if it was going to help me. He assured me that it would. I felt encouraged, as he spoke with such confidence.
After the first injection, I got a very severe attack, which in ordinary circumstances, would have deterred me from going back to him. But I was no quitter. I was determined to give it a fair try and not allow it to discourage me from continuing the treatment. I liked this doctor. He as sincere and I trusted him.
I had the feeling that at last I had found someone that was going to cure me. I went to his office religiously for the six weeks of my injections. After the last injection, which was the largest one, I did not get the usual attack. Whatever it was in those injections he was giving me, there was no doubt it was working.
I thanked him with all my heart, and asked him how much I owed him. He just smiled and said, “You don’t owe me anything, just say a little prayer for me now and then.” He shook me by the hand and told me that I would be just fine from now on and if there was a change and I got an attack again, to come back to him and he would fix me up.
‘What a Christian gentleman.’ I thought. He knew that I did not have a job and could not afford to pay him much. I know that my mother would have found the money somehow to pay him for his service, but she was a single parent who worked two jobs to support us. All he wanted from me was a few prayers. My faith in humanity was restored.
I felt on top of the world as I left his office, so much so that I decided to spread my wings and go to England to find work. I was now part of the human race!
There was a war going on, and London was not the safest place in the world to be with all the bombs dropping. Bbut I had suffered so much all through my childhood that I did not care. I want to experience life! If I was going to die, I would rather go with my boots on.
I went to an agent in Stephen’s Green and signed up for a job with the Great Western Railway. My mother was heart-broken but she understood my feelings. “I will pray for you.” she said, as she saw me off on the tram which was to take me to the boat in Dun Laoughaire.
There had been a lull in the bombings in London in the past few weeks but soon after I arrived the Germans started to bomb london again. Not a very kindly welcome from Hitler.
I went to work on the Paddington Station and it being one of the main railway stations, it was an inevitable target. It got a lot of attention from the German air-force.
I did not worry about it too much, my health was good and that was all that mattered. The climate in London seemed to agree with me much better than the Dublin climate and the asthma attacks were fading. Whenever I did get an attack, it was much less severe than what I had been used to back in Ireland.
The treatment I got from the doctors I attended in England was ephedrine tablets. They were small white pills and very bitter. I would take one if I felt an attack was brewing and those little pills usually did the job and nipped the attack in the bud.
In 1956 I left England and came to Canada with my family. I had three young daughters by then, Carmel, Christine and Kim. Kim was just 6 weeks old when we left.
I came to British Columbia and the asthma came with me. I could not run away from it. I was able to get ephedrine pills here in Vancouver, and if taken in time they usually worked. Then for some unknown reason the tablets were taken off the market.
I was then put on a ‘puffer’ (inhaler) called ‘Breath-Easy’. This helped ease my breathing. I carried that puffer with me everywhere I went. I just had to have it on me; I was dependent on it. Then to my surprise, Breathe Easy was also removed from the market.
I could not understand why there didn’t seem to be any interest in research for a cure for asthma; maybe there was, but I couldn’t see any evidence of it. I naturally assumed that all the resources were being funneled into finding cures for other illnesses. Nobody seemed interested in finding a cure for asthma. That was forty years ago.
Over the years it became apparent that asthma was on the increase, more and more people, young and old, were being diagnosed with asthma. I’m told that the rates are rising by fifty percent every ten years. This prompted the pharmaceutical companies to sit up and take notice and try to find new remedies.
Eventually ventolin and other reliever medications in the form of puffers, came on the market. They came with a host of other drugs, all of which I tried. One was prednisone, a steroid, which was a real wonder drug and worked very well to control inflammation.
The only drawback I found with prednisone was that it was not an easy drug to get off once you were on it and it had many side-effects. I gained a lot of weight, my bones thinned and now I have osteoarthritis in my spine. My skin got thin too, and my face got a real moon-shaped look which is a common look for someone on large doses of prednisone.
I had trained as an actor in London and it became a love of mine. I also worked on movies, tv shows and starred in many stage performances over the years. In 1979 I was invited to go to Dawson City in the Yukon to perform the works of one of my favorite poets, Robert Service. He was famous for writing stories about the Yukon Gold Rush. His most famous being, The Cremation of Sam McGee.
I jumped at it and for the next 30 years I made a living doing what I loved best, acting.
The asthma attacks would come and go while I was in Dawson. I would use the reliever and the long acting puffers that were prescribed to me. When these failed, I would go to emergency and was treated with oxygen, nebulizers and high doses of prednisone.
I never missed a show in al my time in Dawson City. With the help of the good Doctor Parsons and the dedicated nurses, plus a strong determination, the show always went on.
My asthma attacks were became more frequent from the years following 2002. In 2005, when I last came down once again from the Yukon, my health had really worsened. I was hospitalized nine times. I was beginning to get discouraged and nearly gave up the fight. I said to my brother, Sean, “I think I am heading for the last roundup!”
I was on oxygen, prednisone, ventolin, symbicort, and nebulizers (a combination of reliever medications and steroids given through a machine) I carried that machine with me in the trunk of my car. I could not walk any distance without getting out of breathe. I went to the Vancouver Home Show with two of my daughters and they had to push me around in a wheelchair!
This was not like me. I couldn’t believe that this was happening. I was unable to walk around the grocery store without leaning on the shopping cart and having someone with me.
My doctors were doing all they could for me, my lung function was just thirty percent. My doctor at the time, told my daughter, Christine, that I had COPD (asthma and emphysema combined) and that it could not be reversed. They old her that I was on the highest doses of medications possible and that she should start preparing for the worst because they just couldn’t stabilize me.
The doctor said “He is seventy-four you know. He has had asthma all his life. There is nothing more we can do.” I was also told that I would have to take prednisone for the rest of my life.
This was very hard for my daughters to take as their mother had died in 2005 from asthma and emphysema.
A good friend of mine, a prominent lawyer in Vancouver, named John Cleary, was searching online and came across something that claimed to be a natural cure for asthma. It was developed by a medical respirologist in Russia, Dr. Konstantin Buteyko. And his treatment had been helping people in Russia since the early 1950’s. It only got out of Russia in the 1990’s so most people had never heard about it.
John knew how badly I suffered with asthma and so he downloaded the information and gave it to me.
I passed this news onto my daughter, Christine, who went online to find more about this miraculous ‘cure’ for asthma. She downloaded everything she could find about The Buteyko Breathing Method.
Dr. Buteyko spent years trying to get the method recognized by the Russian government. Finally they were looking for a way to reduce health care costs and they eventually funded full research and medical trials. The results were astounding. On a trial on 500 children in Leningrad in 1982, ALL OF THE CHILDREN RECOVERED. In 1983 the treatment was validated and recognized an effective cure for asthma.
I was excited to try this method but Buteyko practitioners are rare in Canada, and none in Vancouver. My daughter discovered that a Buteyko Practitioner from out of town, was coming to Vancouver in January 2006. (3 months time) to do a workshop for asthmatics.
I told her to ‘sign me up!’
As fate would have it, when it came time for the workshop, I was again in the hospital. I asked Christine, if she would go in my place. She agreed and each day she went to the workshop, then brought the information and exercises to me.
The practitioner, had also suffered with asthma all her life and was now asthma free. This encouraged her to become a practitioner. This gave me real hope.
I was very breathless at the time, and could only do the bare minimum. She told me to keep my mouth closed and to do mini-breath holds to save carbon dioxide, which is vital to allow oxygen to be absorbed.
I tried this and it made a huge difference to my breathing. I made up my mind that I was definitely going to do the Buteyko exercises. I had tried everything else, all my life from the age of five to the age of eighty-two. I had nothing to loose and everything to gain.
I immediately started work on what I learned. I found it difficult at first, because of my breathlessness, and the poor breathing ‘habits’ I had since I was a child, but I was determined. I didn’t expect miracle over-night. When I was discharged, I continued with the exercises and found them very helpful. My breathing slow