On 21 November 2016, in Melbourne Victoria, something remarkable occurred which ensured that every Melbournian would become familiar with the term ‘thunderstorm asthma.’ Melbourne was experiencing a very summery day. The Bureau of Meteorology reported that at Melbourne Olympic Park the temperature had reached 35 degrees, but it wasn’t summer yet, it was still spring. And in typical spring fashion, pesky northerly winds were soaring and inconveniencing every woman that had left her hair out and wore a flowy skirt.
By afternoon something happened which was not at all surprising for Melbourne. The city famous for experiencing four seasons in one day was subjected to a cool change which brought with it gusts of up to 80km/h, rain, and something else which was invisible to the naked eye; tiny bursting grains of grass pollen. These released even tinier particles which were in turn inhaled by unsuspecting, largely non-asthma suffering members of the community causing a rapid onset of extremely alarming symptoms. The result? A disastrous thunderstorm asthma event that changed the way the public, the health profession, and the media viewed and responded to asthma attacks.
I often joke about having a really poor memory. And there have been countless times that I have exasperated my family and friends by not being able to recall some childhood event or experience, no matter how much they’ve tried to ‘jog’ my memory. But some memories, including memories of asthma attacks, are unmistakable and unforgettable for every person involved. I should know; I’ve been an asthmatic since I was about three years old, just like my big brother. Growing up, it meant that as a family we went on many fun (insert sarcastic eye roll) excursions to hospital.
If I think back to my childhood now, I can distinctly recall the physicality of having an asthma attack. It was the same every single time – the heavy tightness in my chest; the inability to take in a breath comfortably; and the sensation of having run a marathon when all I had done was try and speak in complete sentences while sitting down in a chair. I remember blowing into my peak flow meter which measured my lung capacity and the dial barely moving and feeling momentary relief from breathing in puffs of ventolin before once again toiling for a gulp of air. If I close my eyes, I can almost hear the controlled whistle emanating from deep within my chest every time I drew breath. And I can still see my mother’s face full of fear racing me to the nearest hospital. It was the same every single time for my brother too, maybe worse.
Once assessed in the Emergency Department as displaying signs of acute asthma, my brother and I would be dowsed with so much Ventolin that our slender frames shook. Oxygen masks would be placed firmly on our small faces until our colour returned to normal. With the crisis over, we’d be sent on our merry way, a take-home kit of the miraculous airway opening substance cortisone in tow, and our mother once again aging at the same rate as everyone else.
Asthma attacks can be extremely frightening for asthma sufferers and those nearest to them. For those that have never before experienced any asthma symptoms, a sudden attack is simply terrifying. When that cool change and the accompanying thunderstorms swept across Melbourne around 6.00 pm on 21 November 2016 during the daily CBD mass exodus and peak commute period, thousands of Melbournians were suddenly overcome with the types of symptoms that my brother and I had learned to recognise from a very young age.
According to the Inspector-General for Emergency Management’s Review of Response to the Thunderstorm Asthma event of 21-22 November 2016, over the course of those two days, 9909 people presented at public hospital emergency departments across metropolitan Melbourne and Geelong, 3270 more than the previous week. Ambulance Victoria, medical practices, pharmacies, and the Nurse-On-Call hotline all received a significant increase in presentations and calls by members of the public experiencing frightening asthma symptoms. The medical profession saw an unprecedented number of affected individuals requiring urgent treatment sending Victoria into a wave of panic as stories emerged in the media of thunderstorm asthma related fatalities. I am so lucky that I was indoors when the thunderstorm hit and that my exposure to the aggravating pollen particles was limited. If I had been outside at the time, who knows what might have happened to me.
The Review outlined 16 recommendations for moving forward following the nine fatalities from the 2016 thunderstorm asthma incident, 11 of which have been implemented thus far. While thunderstorms and thunderstorm related asthma incidents cannot be prevented from happening, together, we can prevent a recurrence of the events of 2016. Measures have already been taken to ensure that Victorians recognise the seriousness of asthma and the potential environmental triggers that can bring on an attack. Through education, awareness, and improved communication channels, Victorians are now being warned when there is a heightened risk of experiencing thunderstorm asthma. Vic Emergency, Melbourne Pollen and Asthma Australia all provide valuable information and advice to asthma sufferers and play a critical role in minimising the risk of future harm to asthmatics and non-asthmatics alike.
On the second anniversary of this terrible tragedy, we are once again in the throws of the high-pollen allergy season. If, like me, you want to do all that you can to stay informed and avoid your exposure to high risk thunderstorm asthma, follow Vic Emergency, Melbourne Pollen and Asthma Australia on Facebook or Twitter to keep up to date with all relevant warnings. Always keep your reliever medication handy and follow your own asthma plan. If your asthma isn’t under control, make the time to talk to your GP about taking the necessary steps to manage your asthma better. Preparedness is key. It’s the least we can do to serve the memory of those who weren’t warned and were let down.
* Mary Gleeko is a former lawyer turned freelance writer. For more of her writing, visit gleekoblog.com