Short answer: the most terrifying thing I had ever been through.
So often I get asked what is it like to have an asthma attack, how does it feel during the attack, how do you feel after, what does the medication do. The questions are endless and sometimes bizarre.
One I get asked most often is when did I have my first asthma attack and what was it like?
I don’t remember the first attack I ever had. I was very young and it was when I was diagnosed with asthma.
What I can tell you about is the first attack I can remember that put me in hospital- it is one that is pretty hard to forget particularly when waiting to be discharged!!
I was at boarding school and must have been about 13 or 14. My asthma was causing me problems which resulted in an attack during the night. Having an asthma attack in a dorm with 5 other girls is scary. I didnt want to wake anyone up because I was having an attack and thought I could handle it myself. Eventually after lying in the dark for what seemed like ages I woke someone up who got my house mistress to come and see me. She also got the school nurse who took me to the med centre. The attack didnt ease up so I had to go to the hospital. Trouble is the town my school was in didnt have a major hospital so I had to go via ambulance to the nearest city.
I remember the ambulance ride vaguely. The main thing I remember was my house mistress also in the ambulance trying to comfort me and tell me I would be ok while the paramedics kept hooking me up to machines, giving me oxygen and nebulisers. It was the middle of the night and I remember the blue lights flashing and the siren going off periodically.
It is strange because the actual attack I don’t remember much once I got to the hospital except for a few things.
First was being given IV hydrocortisone. The side effects of IV hydrocortisone are different now but back then I remember a hot flush all over my body and then the feeling of needing to pee and it felt like I had wet myself. I was young and embarrassed so I couldn’t say anything to anyone. I was sitting there thinking I had wet myself and praying for a moment when I was on my own and I could check if I had. No one told me about this side effect, in fact no one told me about any side effects.
Once my chest had settled down my housemistress went back to school and I was told to try and get some sleep. Sleep in a hospital. No chance that was happening. I was on an acute medical ward with mixed sex bays, very young (I’m not sure why I was not in paediatrics) and very scared. I really wanted someone to be with me, when my housemistress was chatting to me I longed for some peace and to be on my own but once she went I wanted to have that mindless awkward chat back. My mum was coming up from Edinburgh in the morning. I don’t think I got any sleep that night but then over the years I don’t think there is ever a time that you get a full night sleep when you are in hospital!
Waiting for ward round is always apprehensive as you are hoping for good news. Hoping that the Dr’s don’t hear a whistle in your chest, hoping that your peak flow has increased and that they think you can good to go home. Hospital is full of all walks of life and all things happen. Etched into my brain was a site I sat that I was not able to unsee. At the time I found it quite traumatising but now I don’t find it as bad and more feel sorry for the person. The sight was seeing a man trying to escape the ward running down he corridor in a gown which was not tied up showing everything for all to see. If that was not bad enough he was also trailing a catheter bag (at the time I didnt know what having a catheter really meant but now I do and I know just how painful it is if it get tugs and I am female) and was also attached to a drop that was also being dragged along behind him. It was really traumatising and because of this I was allowed to be discharged home when the Drs saw me. I did have to go and be seen in Respiratory clinic in Dundee though fairly regularly but that is a small compromise to getting home.
Although this was not my first asthma attack it is the main one that comes to mind when i think back and also the first one that I remember being in hospital for and recalling details about it. The photo at the bottom of this post was one of the only photos I could find from school that I could post. It was just after I won the 1500m race at school sports day but I think the look on my face is pretty similar to the look on my face when I was recalling the man running down the ward.
One emotion that is present when I think back to my different asthma attacks is fear. No matter how mild or how severe the attacks are I always have a fear that I cant breathe. To be able to have an asthma attack and not be scared is impossible. Often people tell me how great I am because I overcome my attacks and their attacks are not nearly so bad so cant complain to me about them but every attack is scary. For each individual person their worst attack is their worst attack and you can only compare attacks against yourself, you cannot compare your attacks to anyone else’s. Yes some people my have had their worst attack but that didnt result in hospital but it does not mean it is any less scary than one that puts me in ICU. It is all relative.
No one should compare their attacks to someone else’s. Your experience is your experience and no one elses. You can again knowledge and coping skills when speaking to others about attacks but it is not good to compare severity.