Corona Virus what does it mean for severe asthma?

Corona virus, COVID-19 or as I like to refer to it as “the virus” is the hot topic just now and rightly so especially as the World Health Organisation has just declared it to be a pandemic.

I have not posted anything on facebook, instagram, twitter or my blog about the virus because everywhere is saturated and there is a lot of different information about what to do and what is best. The only thing that is consistent is that hand washing is essential and that for the hand washing to be effective it must be 20 seconds minimum. There has been some fantastic stuff developed around songs that you can sing while washing your hands. This is a favourite: Bohemian Rhapsody (it is only half a routine so DO NOT use this to wash your hands)

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What does the virus mean for someone like me?

It is a very serious situation. The effect for me could be devastating. A basic chest infection is horrific and puts me in intensive care and that is a condition that has a treatment. This is a new virus that has no vaccine and no treatment. Should you get the virus the medics can support you and support the area of your body that is failing but otherwise you just have to fight it yourself. When you already fight each day to try and stay well this is an added extra that your body really does not need.

There are mixed messages going about for people with respiratory conditions. The issue with asthma is that it is so varied. For someone with mild controlled asthma the virus might not be that big an issue but I am immunocompromised due to long term oral steroids at fairly high doses and I pick up everything.

To be honest I am terrified. The last hospital admission was really hard and the recovery has been super hard. I have had to invest so much time and energy to get myself back on my feet and the thought of potentially having to do this again put the fear in me let alone to do that recovery plus having COVID-19 on top of it.

What steps am I taking to try and keep myself well?

I am just trying to be sensible but have taken a range of measures to try and protect myself apart from hand washing etc.

  • Withdrawn from speaking events including EyeforPharma in Barcelona, Asthma UK Centre for Applied Research Annual Scientific Meeting and various others. Both of which I am gutted about as was really looking forward to them.
  • Withdrawn from giving a lecture to nursing students at Edin Uni on Professionalism
  • Stopping coaching lacrosse in school
  • Have not been accepting invitation to attend events that are hospital based and any events that has been scheduled I have asked to call in remotely if possible especially if there is a large number of people attending
  • I have done all my shopping and meal prep so I don’t need to go to any supermarkets. i won’t have fresh fruit and veg but I have frozen fruit and veg so won’t miss out totally.
  • Finally the biggest one for me is that I am taking myself out of the city for a few weeks or for as long as needed. I am heading up north to my parents place which is in a small village away from any cities and in the countryside. This will minimise my contact with people and hopefully minimise my risk of catching the virus. I am concerned about getting ill when up north but it is safer to be away than staying in the city.

Its tough to know what to do for the best. With advice changing on a daily if not hourly basis everyone is in a state of flux constantly. We seem to have gone from panic buying toilet roll to panic buying everything that you would keep in a store cupboard.

One other thing I have been very conscious of and I have not mentioned is being in touch with your care team. I am taking the advice primarily from my respiratory consultant but then also my asthma nurse and GP as well. I need to consider what they suggest and listen to what they say over the next coming months more so than ever.

For anyone else who is in a situation with their health like I am I know it is a really difficult time. I am fortunate that I don’t have work to juggle as well as that would just be a whole new ball game. I think if I did still have a job I would be speaking to my managers and explaining my situation. On the whole from others who I have spoken to who have health conditions and work their bosses have been pretty accommodating and supportive. Oddly the thing I have been hearing most is that they wish their bosses or workmates would stop going on about how they have to be careful and or how they need to be aware of the news etc because of their situations and being immunocompromised etc. Many know they are just doing it because they care but even Ia have been getting irritated with people telling me to watch out and I don’t work just now and don’t see a huge number of people right now!!

For now we just need to keep up to date with the NHS advice and hope that things do not escalate.

I will continue to prepare for the worst and hope for the best as much as you can with an unknown situation.

Is severe asthma different to asthma?

In my last blog post I mentioned how I met some other people with severe asthma at a BLF-AUK event where we had a conversation about asthma and severe asthma.

It may have the same mechanisms in that it is a condition where the airways become inflamed and irritated causing difficulty breathing but here ends the similarities. The way it displays itself is different. The way it is managed is different. The way it impacts your life is different. There are too many differences to name them all so this is why we came to the conclusion that it needs a different name.

When someone hears  severe asthma they think its that common everyday condition that every second person has. The part they have not heard is the “severe” that went in front of the asthma which makes it very different, but because asthma is so common people are very relaxed so don’t take it too seriously or act urgently when dealing with it. This leads us to become so frustrated. I can think of so many times where I could potentially have not needed to go to ICU if the Dr I saw at the front door when arriving in A&E took my severe asthma for what it is and not treat it just like asthma.

One of the challenges that people with the condition severe asthma face is that so many in the medical profession refer to those with asthma that is not in control as having severe asthma or brittle asthma when they actually don’t. There are so many terms floating around to describe asthma that is not controlled for example

  • brittle asthma
  • severe asthma
  • difficult severe asthma
  • difficult asthma
  • severe brittle asthma

That is just a few. The issue arises is that some of these terms are used incorrectly and we have GP’s or nurses in the GP surgery telling someone with asthma that is not in control that they have brittle asthma when they don’t. They just don’t have their asthma in control at that moment and need some medication tweaks.

The types of asthma such as brittle asthma can only be diagnosed by a specialist asthma consultant at a specialist hospital. Not even asthma consultant at local hospitals can diagnose it as there is a raft of specialist testing and multi disciplinary input to ensure that everything is ruled out before you are diagnosed with this very rare type of asthma like severe asthma or type 1 or type 2 brittle asthma.

This is why I and others have been thinking that perhaps these extremely rare forms of asthma need a different name that perhaps does not even have the term asthma in its name to save us as patients from not being treated correctly. Maybe just then we won’t suffer so much when in hospital.

Another big issue for some with severe asthma is that we can look ok one minute and the next we are fighting for our life or we look ok but actually we are working incredibly hard to breathe but don’t want people to know. You cant see severe asthma unless you are having an attack which makes it so hard for people to understand just how debilitating it can be. How every aspect of your life is dictated by your condition, that even taking every medication that is there for asthma it is still not enough to give you a quality of life. It is hard to think that despite taking 30 different medications each day I still don’t have control of my health or my breathing to where I would like it.

I wish my lung condition could be covered by the term asthma but severe asthma is far more complex to manage, treat, control, and understand. No 2 people with severe asthma are the same which makes the condition so much more complex to diagnose and manage. This often leads to very frustrated patients and frustrated healthcare practitioners because despite everyones best efforts life is not good, hospital admissions are just part of life, even ICU becomes part of life which should never be the case.

This is why I think severe asthma needs to be totally separated from asthma and doing this could be achieved by changing its name to stop people from being complacent when treating you in an emergency situation.

I hate living with severe asthma and hate that it is so poorly understood. Maybe one day there will be a huge break through and suddenly all of us whose life is dictated by their severe asthma is no longer like that. Until then I will continue to try and raise awareness of what it is like and just how serious a condition it is.

Being a Health Advocate

and how does it differ around the world??

Last April I was in Dallas Texas attending the HealthEvoices (HeV) meeting. A meeting for health advocates to meet and learn from each other. I went out there thinking I knew what health advocacy was but I was wrong to some extent.

A while back I put the question out on social media “What does health advocacy mean to you?” and I got some very interesting answers. What I found most intriguing was that there was a clear split between thoughts in the UK and then thoughts over in the US and Canada.

Pre HeV my understanding of health advocacy was essentially speaking up for yourself or family member to ensure you can get the best treatment, or best healthcare you can for your condition to ensure you can live as independently as possible and without too much interference from your health condition.

I also thought advocating for myself meant me speaking up to my healthcare providers wether it be my asthma consultant, asthma nurse, GP or whoever and tell them the parts of my treatment I did like, the parts I didnt like and also the things that were important to me in my life. I have spoken before about a period in my life when I didnt like the treatments I was on because of the side effects and the amount it intruded in my life so instead of speaking up and saying this I just stopped taking the medication and didnt say anything until I got really unwell. I thought I was wrong to tell my team that I didnt like the treatment they wanted me to be on because they were the drs after all!! It took for me to get really unwell to be able to tell the Drs why I ended up so unwell. They obviously asked me why I didnt tell them rather than just not taking the treatment, but I thought I didnt know as much and had to do as they said. From this point on I learnt that I could speak up for myself and say to the healthcare team that this was my views and opinions etc.

This is on the whole what those in the UK replied with when I asked about health advocacy.

In contrast others mainly (with some exceptions) from the US and Canada said that health advocacy was the sharing of ones own experiences and knowledge to help others and raise awareness for that condition. I think in the UK we would see this as raising health awareness.

Since attending HeV I have wanted to bring this contrasting view of advocacy to the UK and really advocate more for those with chronic health conditions and how you as someone with a chronic health condition can get the best information, and be able to live your life alongside your health condition and not put your life on hold because of it.

Severe asthma- family and friends misconceptions.

I was asked to write this blog post by Asthma UK as their report about severe and difficult asthma has just been published and the statistics are shocking. Asthma is not taken seriously or respected, some people don’t take their medication as they are meant to for a variety of reasons but this can be fatal. Those with asthma and those who know people with asthma need to understand just how serious it can be.

I consider myself very up to date with the latest asthma treatments, ensure I taken my medication as I am meant to and when I am meant to. I ensure I step up and step down my medication as my symptoms ebb and flow according to my personal asthma action plan. Even with my diligence to treatment and keeping myself well it is sometimes no where near enough and asthma wins over you, leaving devastating consequences such as death, the need for life support machine, very toxic drugs to relax the smooth muscle int he airways.

I have lived with asthma almost all my life. Over the years it has progressively become more difficult to control and severe which has impacted my own life and also my families lives as well.

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To manage my asthma I am in the very fortunate to have a team of specialists at the hospital who work hard to ensure I am on the best medication and most appropriate treatment aiming to control my severe asthma as best as possible. Despite this support and regular contact with the team my asthma remains severe to the extent I was put in a medically induced coma and was on a life support machine just under a month ago. I am sure if I did not have the team of specialists then there is a high chance my life would be very different if I was to have a life at all.

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Having severe asthma has resulted in many life changing circumstances from the sheer number of medications I require to control my severe asthma but then also medications to treat or prevent the side effects caused by the medication required to help my breathing. I currently take a total of 37 different medications, 14 of them are for asthma and 23 are for the side effects mainly caused by years of oral corticosteroids. I have also had to give up playing sport, change my career and now have had to give up my career, but the biggest impact has been on my family and close friends.

Living with severe asthma most of my life also means my friends and family have also lived with it too. They see how I try to manage my condition day to day, witness asthma attacks, call 999 for me when I don’t have the puff to call them myself, watch as helpless onlookers while an ambulance, with lights flashing and siren going, takes me to hospital as quickly as possible to stabilise the attack and make my breathing easier and then finally visiting me either in hospital or once I am discharged home. They see all this as well as my determination to manage my asthma desperately trying to ensure it does not take over and dictate my life. Despite witnessing all the above they accepted that this is what my asthma is like and that is that. An assumption was made that my asthma is as bad as it would get and my breathing wouldn’t get any worse than they have all witnessed. They thought this because I am under the care of a specialist asthma team who I can phone for advice whenever I am struggling which in my family and friend’s eyes means my asthma cannot get so bad that I may have a near fatal asthma attack.

My brother commented that he had become used to my asthma and almost complacent about how bad it could be. He said he has heard me speak recently of others who have died from asthma or friends who have been in a very serious condition but because I now have such a specialist team then I would be ok. It was everyday life me having severe asthma with the potential for requiring hospitalisation. He had taken this as normal and accepted it. So events earlier in the month were a huge shock and wake up call for the whole family because they had assumed I was safe with my asthma because I have some of the best people in the country looking after me and my asthma.

I look back now and see how my family normalised me being in hospital and me going to ICU so often which is really shocking. Going to hospital often should not occur let alone going to HDU or ICU that often. In any other health situation or if this was one of my siblings then it would not be just run of the mill and would be a life-altering event for the entire family.

My best friend who has known me my entire life and has been through thick and thin with me, seen me have asthma attacks and visited me in hospital never thought asthma could get as serious as it did during my last admission because I was under the care of specialists. She could not understand how asthma could get so bad when you are taking the latest medication that is available and have access to a team of specialists. She said she had never seen me look so unwell and vulnerable, not being able to do anything for myself reliant on others for everything.

The new report about severe and difficult asthma, which has launched by Asthma UK, makes me feel so fortunate to have such a good team and access to specialist asthma services to manage my asthma. Even with everything I have available my friends and family don’t fully understand how severe and life threatening asthma can be. I am sure if I did not have access to the specialists then asthma would have killed me. Everyone who may have severe asthma or difficult to control asthma needs to have access to specialists to help them live the lives they deserve to.

A year on monoclonal antibody treatment

I can’t believe it is a year since I started on mepolizumab (mepo) a monoclonal anti body treatment to suppress my eosinophils in a bid to help my asthma. The big question is as it helped?

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I am not sure. My consultant seems to think it has and I am to continue on it. My eosinophils have dropped dramatically however I am still on the same maintenance prednisolone dose and we have not been able to reduce it down and I am no longer working just now. I was in clinic last month speaking to my consultant as I was having second thoughts about staying on mepolizumab because I cant see a huge amount of improvement but he feels it is worth staying on it and I have been approved to stay on it for the following reasons:

  1. My blood eosinophil count has come down (I’m not sure of the exact figure just now but we are checking again next month)
  2. My peak flow although overall it is lower than it was the variation in peak flow readings is no longer there and it is a lot more consistent- I cant complain about this as now I know where I am each day compared with before where the diurnal variation was huge.
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  3. Although I have had a near fatal attack and several others requiring hospital I have been able to recover from them a lot quicker than before. My consultant described some of my attacks as spectacular (Im not sure how I feel about that).
  4. Chest infections and colds have not quite taken the hold that they were before and again recovering has been a lot quicker.
  5. My quality of life is better (although for me I am still really struggling with the idea of not being at work doing the job I love).

Looking at the reasons my consultant listed I really cannot complain and can see that the mepo has had an impact. It has not had the wonder drug impact that I hoped for and that I have read many have had but I am alive and have a great team behind me so really need to be thankful.

I did some work a good number of years ago for Astra Zeneca where I met some other asthma patients. One young lady I met had their life totally transformed by Xolair going form being intubated numbers times, not being able to work and very disabled by their asthma to having a full time job and minimal asthma issues. I think deep down part of me was desperate to have this effect. I remember thinking after I was told I would start mepo that I might be able to get back to the gym, start running again and playing lacrosse and golf but that has not been the case which is a bit disappointing for me but I was told not to get my hopes up too much.

Even though the mepo has not been the wonder drug that was going to transform my life I am so grateful to my consultant for being willing to try it and keeping me on it. Apart for the hopes of it transforming my life I was worried about the side effects it might have. On the whole I have really not had any significant side effects. I have been finding I get a bit of a local reaction for about 48-72 hours post injection where the skin is red and hot. Initially when I first started getting the injection I did get a really bad headache, backache and just a general feeling of being unwell. After about the 3rd injection this went away. I have found that if I am a bit under the weather in the days leading up to getting the mepo then I tend to get more side effects in terms of headache etc but nothing that has been so bad it is not worth getting the injection especially as I am not having to get up and work set hours etc.

I have come across different stories on social media about peoples experience of biologics but one thing I have found is the number of people weighing up the travel for these treatments. When you asthma gets to the severe end of the spectrum most are referred on to a tertiary centre where their care is managed and their local hospital is there as a support team but do not take the overall control of your management. There are not many tertiary centres so there is often a lot of travel involved. I am lucky that Id not have a huge distance to travel but I think even if I did I wouldn’t mind because I know the team are doing it in my best interests and the least I can do is travel although it may be more difficult when you factor in that you do have severe asthma which is already controlling your life but if there is a chance that this is going to help then the travel is worth it!!

Another discussion I had with my consultant was about new biologics that are coming out. He is hopeful that dupilumab may have its use altered and some asthmatics may qualify for it. Just now it is only used in adult eczema in the UK but in the States there have been people on it who have aspirin sensitive asthma which is what I have except that I am anaphylactic to aspirin and salicylic acid so fingers crossed this gets a green light at some point as we both think this might work well for me.

The use of these monoclonal anti body drugs is dependent on such specific criteria and the patient needs to meet them and the consultant needs to be able to provide evidence for it before you get the green light. Because of this many are not getting the opportunity to try it and see if it has an effect.

For me I did not match the criteria for blood eosinophils but my consultant was able to argue the case. He was able to show that the prednisolone I am on will be surpassing eosinophil production and if i was not on it then my count would be elevated but it is too dangerous to take me off them or down a significant amount just to get the blood result. I would say it is worth asking your consultant to see if there is potentially a way to justify why you need to try this treatment and then be approved for it. It is so frustrating that a drug you are trying to get off is the main factor to many not meeting the criteria, but if you came off it then it is so dangerous as your asthma can go so out of control without it. I can see why they have strict criteria because the drugs are really expensive as they are such targeted drugs but in time they will drop in price and hopefully the criteria for the drugs will also be more flexible too.

Overall I am glad I have had the chance to try mepolizumab and being able to stay on it. If I had not changed consultants I doubt I would even be considered for it which is a scary prospect as I have no idea where I would be with my health.

If anyone has questions about monoclonal antibody treatment please ask!!

Just use appropriate pictures!!!

I really can’t believe its been a week since I got back to the UK and Healthevoices is over. I still can’t put into words how I feel about it. It was nothing I could ever imagine and really can’t put it in words. It was truly fantastic.

Before I settle to write about the HealtheVoices experience there is something that was posted recently which has really caused a lot of uproar.

Asthma hits the headlines for all the wrong reasons all the time. Normally it is the number of asthma deaths that are occurring hits the headlines which shockingly is at 3 every day in the UK and 11 in the US everyday. Way way to high for a condition that is fairly common but equally under funded.

One of the reasons given to the poor asthma death rate is poor asthma management and poor inhaler technique. There has been a massive push recently in primary care and secondary care to ensure that patients are taking their inhalers when they need to but not only when they need to we need to make sure they are being taken correctly. Unlike tablets which can only really betaken on way, or injections again which when subcutaneous you can’t go massively wrong however inhalers is a whole new board game. The sheer number of different types of inhalers then the need for multi tasking when taking them as you need to breath in, spray inhaler, then take it and hold your breath. There is not enough time given to assessing the type of inhaler which will be best for the patient and suit their needs. Especially the younger people and again older people due to dexterity issues. Even being young, fit and with it taking an inhaler correctly can be hard.

I like to think my inhaler technique is pretty good. I do and have been told on occasion that my technique specifically using my MDI (the traditional spray) inhaler is not quite right. I was even told at an asthma research meeting by one of the Dr’s there my technique was questionable but he said he let me away with it as I was about to go on stage to speak in front of about 150 people. But it shows that even those who can have good technique can slip when not concentrating 100% on what they are doing.

Asthma nurses, dr’s, patients and researchers on twitter were in uproar after the below photo was posted by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE).

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This picture is a complete 101 on how not to take your inhaler. Everything about it is wrong. Quite rightly everyone has been very annoyed by the main centre of excellence for health in the UK getting a photo so wrong. They have clearly not taken any time over selecting a picture or thought about the impression it is going to have on anyone that sees it.

This is not a new issue. Every week there are photos printed/posted relating to asthma which do not show good inhaler technique or even a technique which is relating to the current guidelines. It seems that everyone has their image bank and go to that, select a nice photo and that’s the one that is used.

I have and I am sure many others have come to the conclusion that the image banks have not been updated and are all out of date and not in keeping with current best practice.

As a result of this I have decided to try and make a change. I want to update these image banks and have a wide range of photos, some of older people using their inhaler, some younger people, a mix of devices as well but the key thing is to have the photos which display the current best practice.

I have been very fortunate to have so many people come forward to help with this so I am keen to get started. I have never done anything like this before but the hope is there will be more photos like the one below and zero photos appearing similar to the above.

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Having the support of your GP or Asthma Nurse

Having had asthma basically all my life one thing I have come to realise is the importance of your relationship with your GP or asthma nurse. For many they are the front line for you and your asthma care.

I am so fortunate to have a GP who is really understanding and although she finds my asthma baffling she will listen to me and help me when and where she can. Little things like making sure my medications are prescribed correctly, I get my flu jab etc. They also have various flags on their file on the system- this helps so much.

Many dread the phone call into the GP to try and get an appointment because their chest is not good but you have to get passed the gate keepers- the reception staff!!! Before the flags were on the system I used to have great difficulty trying to explain the importance of being seen promptly because my asthma goes off so quickly. It was a nightmare- I understand why they need to do it as appointments are short for the number of patients that need to be seen but when it is asthma it can be different.

After a bad experience not being able to get an appointment on the day because the reception staff thought it could wait, I ended up in hospital! During my follow up appointment with my GP which because I had been in hospital I was able to arrange via the reception staff, my GP was slightly irritated at me not being seen as it is important and could prevent hospital admissions.

Since that follow up appointment there is a flag which says if I am phoning in about my asthma I am to be seen by either my GP or one of the nurse practitioners who know my chest very well. There is also a flag that if I say I need antibiotics I can have a phone call rather than appointment and a final flag that if I feel I need to go to hospital they are to call the respiratory reg on call and arrange this.

Having these flags has made such a difference and offered a sense of security as I know if my asthma is bad then I will be dealt with urgently. Obviously if I call about something else I would need to wait just like everyone else.

I realise I am very fortunate to have all this set up. I wanted to highlight it so that others can ask their GP surgeries about this to help them manage their asthma better as it is a huge stressor when you asthma is bad and not able to get the help. Something so simple as a flag can make the world of difference.