Learning to play the bagpipes has proven to be the best medicine for Glenfyne’s Stacey Riches.
The instrument has saved the 15-year-old from a life-time of strong medication to treat an incurable lung condition, according to her parents Gavin and Michelle.
And for the past five weeks she has been practising with the Warrnambool and District Pipes and Drums band at the botanic gardens in preparation for Saturday’s Highland Gathering competition at Daylesford.
At age six, Stacey suffered the first of three bouts of pneumonia.
Her lung condition was so bad that on one occasion they had to fly back to Australia after only five days into a sea cruise, despite having been given the all-clear by doctors for the holiday.
“She became very sick and ended up in hospital,” Mrs Riches said.
At first they were told it was just asthma but after being sent to the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne for tests, a CT scan showed Stacey had bronchiectasis.
The bronchial tubes at the bottom of her lungs are permanently dilated making it hard to fight colds and infections and doctors told them Stacey had lost 10 per cent capacity in her right lung and five per cent in the left.
“She was put on a heavy dosage of antibiotics and we were told she’d have to be on that for the rest of her life,” Mrs Riches said.
“It was stronger than what an adult usually takes because every time we took the script to the pharmacist, he’d say: ‘this can’t be for an eight or nine-year-old child’,” Mr Riches said.
“They said to get into swimming because that’s good for the lungs. Every time she’d get into the pool she’d get an infection.”
So Stacey opted to learn the bagpipes from tutor Donald Blair.
One breathing exercise doctors recommended was blowing through a straw into a half-filled, two-litre bottle of water two or three times a day when she was sick.
But Stacey found that the bagpipes and chanter worked almost exactly the same.
After 18 months, doctors in Melbourne noticed an improvement in Stacey’s lungs – which they attributed to the bagpipes - and she was able to stop taking the medication.
“At two years the doctor did a repeat CT scan and he was really shocked that what looked like permanent damage was now like a faint cobweb,” Mrs Riches said. “The capacity of her lungs is now well above normal.”
The change was so great that doctors even questioned whether they had somebody else’s results by mistake.
Stacey – who was recently named Victorian C-grade Piper of the Year - has now set her sights on being invited to play at the World Pipe Band Championships in Scotland.