Billy Bowden raises crooked finger for arthritis

Controversial New Zealand cricket umpire Billy Bowden is heading a campaign over a health issue affecting more than 500,000 New Zealanders.

As Bowden waits for confirmation of his cricket umpiring appointments for the season, he is hoping people will soon associate another word with him - arthritis.

Bowden, 43, is the frontman for Arthritis New Zealand's annual appeal and is making a public statement about a disease he has kept private since he was diagnosed with it when he was 23.

"I am not going out to portray myself as an arthritis sufferer so people feel sorry for me. Arthritis people aren't like that. There is an inner-strength with many of these special people."

Bowden says he was "gutted, devastated" when a virus he contracted at the age of 21 developed into rheumatoid arthritis. It affected his elbows, left wrist and fingers - giving him his trademark crooked-finger dismissal he has used since 1996.

"It was through my whole body and I lost a lot of weight. It happened when I was in the prime of being a cricket player."

Dreams of playing cricket were left behind as he was sick for almost a year and a half.

Bowden admits the diagnosis was a bleak time in his life but he has no time for self-pity. Bowden's strong Christian faith helped him through the initial diagnosis but it still "knocked me for six".

By being a recognisable face for the appeal, Bowden hopes to bring awareness and understanding to what is a "terrible, horrible and crippling disease".

The fact many people do not know and are surprised to learn Bowden has arthritis - the "Big A" as he calls it - is a "double-edged sword".

Bowden takes pride in the fact that many people are not aware he has arthritis - it means he has not made himself a victim.

But the decision to be the face of the campaign was motivated by his desire for people to know "what arthritis is all about, not so they can feel sorry for me but so they can be aware".

"It's time for me to give something back."

Surprisingly Bowden says he is a lucky man, who through a positive attitude, a good diet - his wife is a nutritionist - and support from family and friends, has made his arthritis a manageable disease.

"I was meant to have arthritis and I have always said since then, arthritis has been good to me. And it has been.

"I didn't want to let arthritis beat me and today I can say I am beating arthritis. I've still got it of course and I will always have it but that doesn't mean I take pity on myself."

Bowden describes his arthritis as being in remission and he no longer relies on the 100 milligrams of Voltaren a day, which he used from 1986 to 1991.

Despite his optimism, Bowden is serious when he speaks about the suffering people with arthritis have to endure. "People need to be aware that it's not a death sentence like some diseases are but it's a full-time pain sentence, a prison sentence of suffering in a way.

"The scary thing about it, is that it can come any time, any place, anywhere."

With over 140 types of arthritis, the more people are aware of it, the better they can deal with it, Bowden says from experience.

"It's a special people, I have found, who have arthritis. Especially those who are crippled by it and they still have a smile on their face."

Bowden says the example of a woman who won a television by donating to Arthritis New Zealand, illustrates what he calls the "truth" of the disease.

"The organisation rang her up to congratulate her and she was in a resthome - you think it was someone 70 years of age upwards but she was 27 years old.

"She is riddled with arthritis and it's the only place she can go to be looked after.

"And that just brings home the truth about why arthritis is really important - it's not an old people's disease. It can come into your life, your body, any time, anywhere."

The Arthritis Orange Appeal begins with a nationwide street appeal on Friday and continues to October 6.

The disease

* More than 522,000 New Zealanders have arthritis (one in six over 15 years).
* Arthritis affects all ages - toddlers to elderly.
* The condition causes pain and disability.
* 25,440 New Zealanders cannot work because of arthritis.
* There is no cure.


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