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Helping island breathe easy

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Working together: Open Airways co-founders Trina Godfrey, left, and Liz Boden (Photograph supplied)

Trina Godfrey quit a high-flying job 20 years ago to mother her children: four boys, all under the age of 7.

She then decided to devote her ‘spare’ time to helping Liz Boden change Bermuda.

The paediatric nurse was then the island’s only qualified asthma educator and passionate about the cause.

“I’d been in ICU five times with asthma so I knew what it was like to fight for my life,” Mrs Boden said.

“In the early 1990s, there was suddenly a great interest in asthma. Before then, there was not good preventer medication. I got into it at an exciting time. We suddenly got to think, not of the doctor stopping the problem but of patient-centred medication.”

She was surprised to learn just how much work had to be done. Many of the people that she saw with asthma didn’t have health insurance or the money to buy the basic equipment to control the chronic disease; many were living in homes filled with allergens and irritants.

“There were people who couldn’t afford basic spacers,” the nurse said. “We saw children who were bullied in school because they couldn’t fit in because of their asthma, children who were missing school because of their asthma, who were sleeping on the floor; their home environment was not conducive to learning.”

She was thrilled when Mrs Godfrey offered to help.

“I knew Liz from having all [of my] babies,” the chartered accountant said. “Liz said she was working with asthma patients and could see the need for a charity. I offered to help with the paperwork, and that was it.”

The former Aon executive asked her insurance industry contacts for their support. Open Airways was registered as a charity a year later, in 1997.

The pair volunteered their time for eight years.

“We got a grant from Atlantic Philanthropies for us to do research on respiratory care in Bermuda and thought it was wonderful,” Mrs Boden said. “As part of that, we had advice from systems analysts and the first thing they said was, ‘You two running this thing without pay is not sustainable. What’s going to happen to it if you stop?’”

With that advice, they set Open Airways up as a company, limited by guarantee. They also established a board of directors and put a payment plan in place.

“Basically, we started running it on a more formal basis,” Mrs Godfrey said. “We moved into it slowly but, to be cost-effective, we decided we didn’t need a building. It’s probably the best thing we did.”

What was evident was that they needed more hands for the charity’s work to gain traction.

They decided it was wiser to “train other people’s nurses and let them pay their salaries” than to burden the charity with ongoing costs. Today, the pair is extremely proud that Open Airways has helped educate so many of the island’s healthcare professionals.

“People poured through the doors for the first course,” Mrs Boden said. “Before that, there was no training, no continuing education for nurses here.

“There are about 287 healthcare professionals who have done the diploma [through Open Airways]. Some have left the island, others have retired, but we still have key people still working in the prisons, in the schools ... it’s a wonderful network of people.”

It’s one of their many achievements over the years.

Asthma affects about one in every five children in Bermuda; in the US it’s one in every ten and in the UK, one in every 11.

With those statistics, Open Airways decided in 2005 that it was paramount to have an educational programme in government schools. The charity also gives every primary-school-aged child with asthma a new pillow every year.

“We petitioned for a dedicated asthma nurse,” said Mrs Godfrey. “We asked if we paid the salary for two years, and if we proved there was a need, would [Government] then take over.”

The initiative was a success. Open Airways continues to support it, paying for the nurse’s equipment and continued training and the van that is in use.

“If you talk to any school student, they’re very well informed,” Mrs Boden said. “They can tell you to put stuffed toys in the freezer every week for six hours to kill dust mites; they know that pillows become full of mould and dust mites.”

Spacer devices are distributed throughout the year to people of all ages who use inhalers.

“Many people think a spacer is for a child or for someone who can’t co-ordinate,” Mrs Boden said. “We say they’re for everybody because they allow better access to lungs.”

Lunch-and-learn workshops, health fairs and private consultations are also on their list of accomplishments.

“We’re trying to have fewer admissions to the Emergency Department,” said Mrs Godfrey. “In the last six years, visits to ER are down 26 per cent. We do all we can to educate; any opportunity that presents itself, we do. When people think of asthma they think it’s a cough and a wheeze, and that’s it — unless you’ve had it. It’s potentially life-threatening, there are still 100,000 people a year dying from it.”

•British asthma expert Hilary Pinnock will hold a workshop for healthcare professionals tomorrow and Friday. Visit www.openairways.com to register.

Efforts rewarded: Open Airways co-founders Trina Godfrey, left, and Liz Boden were presented with a plaque at Government House last month in honour of the charity’s 20th anniversary (Photograph supplied)
Road ready: Deann Trott, the Department of Health school asthma nurse in the van provided by Open Airways (Photograph by Richard Hawke)