Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Why we asthmatics need you to listen

I'm utterly incensed! I've just read a story about a young boy who died of asthma after his school left him waiting in a corridor and did not seek help. As a lifelong asthmatic, I can't say I'm surprised. Despite the fact that asthma is far more common than when I was a child, understanding of it among non-medical people doesn't seem to have improved an iota. Countless times I've been instructed to breathe into a brown paper bag (not a good idea at all), calm down (not at all helpful) or sit next to an open window (again not very helpful)

While a school child I always had bad attacks around September and was constantly being told it was because I was a nervous type and worried about going back to school. My sensible mother was unconvinced and she was proved right as I still have bad attacks at the same time of year, probably as a result of tree pollens. And anyway you'd be feckin' nervous if you were taking Ventolin and having asthma attacks!!!

Perhaps my worst experience was an A level French revision trip I attended aged seventeen . The location was a large, dusty Victorian mansion where we were provided with woolen blankets (lethal for me). In loco parentis were a bunch of inexperienced French assistants, probably barely out of their own teens.

Every night I had bad asthma attacks and one night had probably the worst asthma attack of my life, coming close, I believe, to dying. While I don't believe in religious near death experiences I did experience the 'going down a tunnel towards a light' phenomenon as my breathing became more and more laboured and I assume my body more and more depleted of oxygen. At one point I decided, with a strange acceptance, that I was going to die and basically gave in. I was very lucky that a friend intervened and I will be forever grateful to her as our French teachers were too busy flirting with one another in the staff room to be remotely interested (a few years later I did the Heimlich manoeuvre on my friend when she was choking, so we're quits I feel)

When my friend informed our temporary carers, nobody took me to hospital or did anything except coo 'doucement' (sounds nice but pretty crap really). The only thing that saved me was said friend sitting up with me all night while I overdosed on Ventolin and black tea. I arrived home in a hell of a state and my parents were furious.

I had hoped that nearly thirty years later, things would have improved, that understanding of asthma would be more widespread. But sadly I fear people still don't understand asthma at all including the lady who decided she could 'cure' me of my 'panic attacks' on the train back from Edinburgh a couple of year ago when I had a sudden and scary asthma attack. I had quite a job getting away from her, which added no end to the stress of the situation. I ended up hiding from her ‘kindness’ in the corridor next to the toilets where a thoughtful guard offered to stop the train and get help. Fortunately,I managed to control my attack with the use of drugs while my sister took the flaky lady, who was remonstrating with her about not understanding my 'panic attacks' , to task.

We asthmatics have to take some responsibility and I'm forever boring newbies to my life about which inhalers are preventers and which is the one for emergencies. I just wish a few more people would listen though, take us seriously, put on hold some of their prejudices (we don't do it to get attention or because we don't like your cat or your blankets) and dispense with homely remedies and old wives' tales (put your brown paper bags away). Maybe then we could avoid unnecessary deaths like the loss of that young boy. We're not highly strung, we're not hyperventilating and we're not in need of shoving towards the nearest open window. We're asthmatic.

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