Patti Newton: Bert may not have made it

The shock of pneumonia diagnosis and how to avoid the illness.

The Retiree Magazine chats exclusively to Patti Newton about Bert’s experience from suffering pneumonia, baby boomer health and how you can best protect yourself this flu season.


You and Bert are obviously very busy baby boomers, what do you do to keep yourselves fit and healthy around your busy schedules?
I’m not sure what Bert does, he I guess is not fit enough! That’s the problem, that’s why people start to get a bit sick because they stop doing all the active things they used to do and perhaps they need to do a bit more of that. I know when Bert got sick he then realised that he had to do a lot more walking. I’m somebody that is fairly active and I’m always out in the garden and I’ve got three grandchildren to run around after , I’m a hands on grandma and I love it, it’s not a chore for me as it is with a lot of grandparents, but it makes my day.

I guess I keep busy doing that, and as well I’m a bit of a gardener. I have three dogs so I walk the dogs and I go to the gym, not as often as I should! I had a thing called transient global amnesia where part of the criteria was I had to keep active and keep the blood stimulating, and I think that’s something more or less we need to do at this stage of life. Bert very much so because there always has been a big person trying to come out, so he needs to watch what he eats and what he drinks and have a healthier lifestyle. He’s a very, well I shouldn’t say, workaholic, because he hates that word! But he’s not the sort of person that you’re ever going to get to retire. He’ll always be active and always be busy and always have lots of things on. The more he’s got on, the better he likes it.

Just recently he bought the grandchildren piggy banks which they had to paint and as soon as they’re dry the chore is going to be to every week do something and fill them, and when the piggy banks are full then the children can have the money. So, he’s one of those people that loves to be active and do lots of everyday things and also lots of special things. Recently our grandson Sam was very interested in Bert’s awards [displayed in his office]. Sam’s only four but he wanted to know what Bert got the awards for, and of course Sam’s father is an Olympic swimmer, so his dad has got awards as well. So Bert looked in the phone book and got this number, then raced off and asked this company if he could have awards for the grandchildren. Sam’s was for the best dancer because he loves to dance when the music comes on, and our granddaughter Eva, who is a very good drawer, got an award for the best drawer.  Now they’ve both got their own awards, so Bert loves having a mission and doing things like that. It’s definitely part of his physical regime as he’s always thinking of new things he can do.

When Bert did get sick, what were the signs of pneumonia?
Well he was working very hard as he was doing Wicked. He’d done Melbourne and Sydney and he was starting to do the tour of Brisbane, and the floods were there. It was at a time when everybody was getting sick because the water had overflowed from the river in Brisbane and got into the theatre. People were getting sick everywhere and food supplies weren’t all that frequent.
So Bert got a bout of a chesty cold and I guess because he worked on it and didn’t look after himself, and I wasn’t there, I was in Melbourne. When he came home from Brisbane he was heading off to Perth and at this time the volcanic ash was flying around and the planes were delayed. I said to him, I just don’t think you’re on top of things, you don’t look at all well. And he was very breathless. He did eight shows a week, it’s a very busy show, and doing eight shows a week is a lot particularly when you’re away from home when you probably don’t eat as well.

Because Bert couldn’t get on the plane I suggested we see the doctor to have him checked out, and we did, and the doctor said that we needed to go straight to the hospital. We went to Epworth Hospital, in Melbourne, and Bert ended up being in intensive care for a week.

Was that a shock?
It was a shock. I had no idea that he was as sick as he was, and neither did he. Bert tolerates pain very well and if ever you ask Bert how he is he always says “great”. He’s not one of those people that says, “Oh I,ve got this terrible back ache.” He very rarely complains about being sick or feeling off colour. We didn’t have any idea that he was as sick as he was and I think we were very lucky because had he got on the plane and gone to Perth he probably could have collapsed on the plane, or he may not have made it. Pneumonia is very high risk and I don’t think people realise just how serious it is, it is life-threatening. That’s why with the flu season here it’s such a good thing for everybody to be aware that there are precautions you need to take. I suppose if you do get sick, don’t go into work, don’t be doing things, don’t have the grandkids over, stay in bed and get well because it takes a hold of you. People, particularly with other illnesses, sometimes I think if it wears you down and you get so bad and you get pneumonia and sometimes it’s hard to rise above it.

There is a vaccination that you can have now. Bert and I are much for that and that’s what he has done now to prevent it ever happening again. At the time that Bert was sick with pneumonia people kept stopping me in the street saying, Tell Bert to look after himself, it’s very serious you know, you don’t realise how serious it is. And that’s true! Until you’re touched by it you don’t realise how serious it is, how risky it is, and how many bad things can happen.

What were the important steps to recovery?
Well as I said he was in hospital and he was having trouble breathing so he was on oxygen and all these drips, You know, it can lead to many other problems so in the hospital he was checked over totally and he had lots of tests while he was there. Then when he came home the lung doctor gave him very strong exercise programs and he had somebody come to the house to make sure that he was doing them properly and getting his lungs filled with air, breathing properly, going for his walks, getting early nights, cutting down on fatty foods and doing all the right things. You just need a bit of a wake-up call occasionally I think. When you get to a certain age you do need to start looking after yourself and worrying about what you’re eating and what you’re not drinking!

Was it a long recovery process?
No because Bert doesn’t like being sick and he doesn’t think about it too much. I was a bit concerned because he did go to Perth and he did do Wicked. He ended up taking a couple of weeks off to recover, but probably anyone else wouldn’t have gone to Perth and done the show. But he finished it, came home and he was good and ‘chomping at the bit’ to see what he could do next.

What other tips to you have for baby boomers to avoid illness this winter?
If you get sick, don’t do what you normally do and ‘crack hardy’, stay indoors, keep warm and get over it rather than letting it get to the pneumonia stage. Also I think you do have to do a bit of exercise and make sure that you’re living a healthy lifestyle. That’s what it’s all about, if you can keep yourself healthy and if you do get the flu or a cold, if you look after yourself it might not get to the pneumonia stage.

I’ve just been to the doctor myself just to find out how to stop things like this happening and his recommendation for me was to have the vaccination because that way you can breathe easily knowing that your body has a certain amount of resistance to it.

You mentioned your grandchildren who are playing a role in your healthy lifestyle, how have you been finding your role as a grandmother?
I love it. I have a great relationship with my daughter and we’re very close, as I was very close with my mother. I’m very lucky. Bert and I are both very privileged that we’re given the opportunity to be around our grandchildren as often as we are. I guess we’re very good to them so they’re very good to us.  It’s never a chore for me I see them every day. My daughter Lauren has a four-year-old who Sam, a three-year-old Eva and Lola the new baby is nine weeks old. So we’re very thrilled and I know my life would be half as good or it wouldn’t be complete without the grandchildren every day.

I’m a great believer in getting up in the morning, getting dressed, putting a bit of make-up on and going out and not being boring and staying home! Even if it’s just taking the dogs for a walk or catching up with a friend for a coffee, I think that’s what keeps me going. I love people and I’m lucky that I have a lot of life-long friends.

Influenza and pneumonia are one of the top 10 contributing causes of death in Australia, resulting in more than 75,000 hospitalisations and 2,300 deaths annually.  Vaccination is one of the best ways people can prevent pneumonia for the over 65s, topping specialist Dr Rod Pearce’s list of the Top 5 ways people can protect themselves:

  1. Get vaccinated – Vaccines for influenza and pneumococcal pneumonia can help protect you from serious illness.
  2. Manage your other medical conditions – By managing conditions such as chronic lung disease, diabetes and heart disease and seeking early assessment when sick you can help guard against serious illness.
  3. Get healthy – A balanced diet and plenty of exercise is important to help ensure you’re strong and ready to fight off Infection.
  4. Learn to love soap and warm water – Practicing good hygiene, such as hand washing and covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing, can help stop the spread of infections.
  5. Stop smoking – That’s right! Amongst other nasties, smoking increases the risk of respiratory illness so it’s time to ditch the cigarettes.

Dr Rod Pearce sits on the board of Directors of the Influenza Specialist Group

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