I’m 68 now, and a long-term asthmatic. Two weeks after being born, I developed extreme eczema which I had until about four years old. At about four and a half, Mum took me to gala day where there were horse rides and the horse triggered a huge attack of asthma, the first. They put me on a stretcher in the front room, while under instruction from the doctor they sponged down the walls of my room and frantically vacuumed for dust. A family friend sat down beside me and told me a beautiful story about an enchanted castle. This was to become a pattern - my mother would sit on my bed during my attacks and tell me stories to keep me conscious, and I always wanted to know what happened next, struggling to stay breathing so as to hear what happened in the end.

Derek Gordon Bringwonder

The asthma attacks began every night sometime after I’d go to bed. They were life-threatening with no relief until I was 11, when I was presented with the newly invented inhaler which was like a miracle. The doctor occasionally gave me an adrenaline injection, totally out of favour now of course. My sister was a bad asthmatic as well. It terribly affected my parent’s marriage, because our mother was constantly exhausted from being up all night to us both. My mother was a well-known dramatic performer in Hamilton, acting in the Hamilton Light Operatic, Playbox, and did many solo performances professionally, so her storytelling was top-notch. It helped enormously to be entertained by such a talented mother while struggling to stay alive.

I of course spent huge chunks of time away from school. When I was 10 my sister and I were sent to a health camp at Raglan. We didn’t have to do school work in those days, and the nurses put on concerts for us. The storytelling had a permanent effect on me. I acted Hamlet at 17, at Hamilton Boys High, and after I’d taken my degree and taught in secondaries for 10 years, I left teaching and became NZ’s first full-time storyteller – Bringwonder the Storyteller – travelling around schools and festivals supporting my family entirely through storytelling. So you see, if asthma had not existed, I wouldn’t have had all that subconscious dramatic training for my storytelling!  I also had some pretty inspiring personalities around me while growing up, and I believe that helped.

Our doctor told my father that I might be dead before I was 20, I was that bad.

Physically I became quite fit and still am, and have to say that if an asthmatic becomes unfit, the asthma increases. I know that asthma these days is associated with damp houses and poverty, however we were not in that category.The fact that I lived in Hamilton, very foggy in those days, did not help. But to me, hard exercise, a good diet and using medication wisely helps. Modern asthma medication is brilliant and I’m sure it’s helped to keep me alive! Our doctor told my father that I might be dead before I was 20, I was that bad.

There was a lot of ignorance for a long time about asthma. The idea that it is psychosomatic still persists in some minds. Having to struggle for breath is a terrible business, but at least asthmatics are getting a lot of recognition and help these days.


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Sadly, many New Zealanders are affected by respiratory disease. One in six New Zealanders have a respiratory condition. Respiratory illness is the third leading cause of death in New Zealand.

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