by Angela Edghill, chairperson, Asthma Society of Ireland.
When it came to asthma – as with many other things – I was a late starter. There is no history of asthma in my family.
About 12 years ago after a bout of flu which “went to my chest”, my GP prescribed a reliever inhaler. I used it a few times and then forgot about it.
In late 1997 I went on holiday to Egypt. Before I was due to go away, I caught a cold and developed a cough which kept me awake. I went to my GP who wasn’t happy to hear that I still intended to go away. He asked about the inhaler. I wasn’t 100% honest about the fact that I was using it often! He prescribed another, preventer, inhaler, a short course of steroids and antibiotics and told me to come and see him again in a week. When I went back, he was still unhappy about my going, but I convinced him that I would be careful.
I had a great holiday. I took my medication but still had a cough and towards the end of the week I lost my voice.
On the day we were due to leave I woke up feeling as if there was someone sitting on my chest. I tried to get out of bed, but found that I couldn’t walk and I didn’t have enough breath to speak more than about two words at a time. That was my first major attack, though I didn’t recognise it at the time.
A doctor was called. He examined me, gave me an injection of hydrocortisone and said I needed to be in hospital. I made it clear that I wanted to go home as planned. I went to the airport in a wheelchair. The flight home was a nightmare because I felt so awful.
I saw my GP immediately. I had x-rays, sputum tests, blood tests, more steroid tablets, more antibiotics and was introduced to peak flows and the odd nebuliser in the surgery. For the next month I was in and out of work. My lungs just wouldn’t settle down. Each time I thought it was under control, it would start all over again. I think even my GP began to despair. My condition was so unresponsive to treatment, we discussed malaria, legionnaires disease, or the possibility that I had caught some unknown virus in Tutankhamon’s tomb!
My GP referred me to a consultant respiratory specialist. He took me into hospital for tests. I felt like a fraud and hoped that I’d only be in for a day or two. While in hospital I had another severe attack. I was frightened by the attack, but even more so by fact that it was treated so seriously. I’d only been in hospital before for relatively minor surgery. In those instances, barring complications, the time scale for full recovery was quite clear and identifiable. I’d never been a “sick” patient. It was dawning on me that things were not going to be so clear-cut as before.
I was annoyed when my doctor told me that I would be on a reducing dose of medication for some months. I had expected him to make me completely better and medication free.
Another attack in late January 1998 and put me in hospital again this time through A & E. I thought for the first time that I might die. When the oxygen mask was removed for a moment I felt I wouldn’t ever again be able to empty my lungs to take in air. That was very frightening.
I blamed myself for being ill. I was angry that it had happened again. I hated the medication, particularly since the steroid tablets had so many side effects. While in hospital, my doctor said in a vain effort to cheer me up “You have asthma, it doesn’t have you.” I was so angry with him. I wanted to scream, “But it does have me. It’s changed the way I look. I can’t work. I’ve no social life and I’m full of chemicals. It does have me!” While I was a compliant patient I wasn’t a happy one.
Things still hadn’t settled down. I developed a cough but tried to convince myself that it was a cold, and not an asthma symptom. I was so desperate to stay out of hospital I the fact that it was increasingly difficult to walk and talk. I ended up in A&E again.
My confidence ebbed away. I described this feeling at the time as being like a bag of sand which had a hole in it, and all I could do was watch helplessly while the sand poured out. I was miserable and felt I couldn’t do anything I had done before.
My doctors explained the reason for the treatment I was on and said eventually the asthma would be controlled, but that it would take time to get the balance right. I wasn’t always convinced.
Before this I had been quite light-hearted and optimistic. I wanted to feel that way again. I decided that I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and start taking control. I began to read everything I could about asthma and I went to an Asthma Society Information day and then I joined the Asthma Society.
Eventually, the asthma began to settle down. There were times of “two steps forward and one step back”, but at least it was progress.
After six months I went back to work full time. People knew how controlled the asthma was by the way my voice sounded over the telephone. I hadn’t noticed that aspect before but became aware of it when I watched a video taken on our holiday in Egypt. Whenever I was in shot, there was a strange background noise later identified as my breathing!
There have been some bad days since but I am much more confident now. I know that there are no guarantees. I take my medication routinely every day.
In the meantime, I’ve got to know my local pharmacist very well and am used to collecting my monthly medication in a large carrier bag, and to taking it with me whenever I go away. I have asthma, but it no longer has me.