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.

It’s ok to not be ok.

This past week has been really tough. Asthma is one of those conditions that is on a spectrum. Going from those with the mildest of asthma to those with the most severe and life threatening asthma you get everyone across the board and you can not pick out the one person with mild and the one person with severe asthma. You can’t see asthma, sometimes you can hear it depending on how wheezy you are!!!

Recovery from this last hiccup has taken a lot longer than I ever anticipated. It was not the worst of attacks but equally was not the mildest either. I was only in hospital for a week yet it has taken me a good 3 weeks to get back on my feet and still Im not there yet.

I have been so fortunate this time to have the support of my consultant. When I say support I mean that should I have issues he has said so many times that I just need to call his secretary and she will get him to call me back or the resp reg on call to give me a call. Having that support is so reassuring to me it makes life that little bit easier. Also being seen in clinic every month (which is a faff but won’t be forever) and then on top of that I am at the ward once a month too for my mepolizumab injection with the asthma nurse specialists so if I have any issues I can ask them too.

As much support as there is they cannot speed up the recovery process and help with the everyday symptoms that just take time. The never ending fatigue that no matter how much you rest it just doesn’t go away (Thanks to prednisolone contributing to that), and no it doesn’t help by getting a good night sleep. It is a fatigue that is unlike no other- a fatigue that having a nap won’t fix, it is a feeling where your whole body feels double its weight, you are not tired and sleeping doesn’t help, but you just cant do anything. Until you have experienced it (which I hope you won’t) you have no idea what it is like. This is the really hard bit. Fatigue you cant see, and asthma you cant see.

Keeping your mind motivated is really hard when your body is preventing you from doing what you love. This is the challenge I keep facing. This time of year its all about Christmas, Christmas Parties, going out with friends, shopping and enjoying the festive period, but I feel like I am sitting watching the world go by and seeing photos of people enjoying themselves but I haven’t been able to join them. Just going to the shops to get the messages is hard enough leaving me exhausted.

One big thing that I am really finding hard and one friend who is also on biologic therapy said this can be a side effect is speed of recovery as well as joint and muscle weakness. Speed of recovery has been slow but as I keep trying to tell myself slow and steady wins the race- but truthfully its getting really wearing now. The other thing is the joint and muscles weakness. I always have some weakness after being in hospital as for most of it I am bed bound and not able to get up due to the inability to breath and also the number of IV lines I have which are often in my feet making walking a challenge. Building up slowly isn’t helping. The only way I can describe it is having DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) but having DOMS that won’t go away. Normally lasting 48 hours this has been 2 weeks now and my quads feel like they are ripping in half every time I go to sit down or stand up, occasionally jerking as I walk too, stairs are an interesting experience- thankfully I have a lift in my building so can avoid the stairs!!!

I am desperate to get back to work and my consultant knows this. I see him tomorrow to hopefully get the ok. I know it will be tough going back to work but I need something to mentally challenge me. I having been doing bits and pieces of research and evaluation of research conferences too. Evaluation forms I find are so hit or miss especially when there has been positive or negative things that you want to acknowledge etc- there is never the room and I end up putting a covering letter along with the form.

This whole recovery process and hospital admission this time has taught me a lot. The main thing I guess I have finally accepted is that it is ok to not be ok. It is ok to ask for help and admit when you are defeated. Over the years I have been made to see a psychologist to help me deal with life with severe asthma. You could say I was a bit resistant to it initially. I think it was the stigma I associated with it. I felt that if I was seeing a psychologist then something was wrong with me mentally and actually my problems were psychological rather than physical. I think I made this assumption because I was young (this was over 12 years ago) and at the time there was really not much openness about mental health and it really was stigmatised. In more recent years as my asthma has impacted my life in ways I never thought it would and prevented me doing more than I ever thought I have been so thankfully to have access to a psychologist  who I can see regularly and help deal with the restrictive aspects of living with such severe asthma. What I have found though is that I have focused so much on adapting life to cope with my asthma and the majority has been on pacing. I didn’t realise that a major area which we never worked on or spoke about was the severe life threatening attack that comes out the blue much like this last one was, and also the trauma after it. It has almost felt like a mild version of post traumatic stress because even at clinic last week I got this huge sense of fear when I saw those windows of the ICU again.

So tomorrow I have a variety of different appointments all at different hospitals. The morning I have the asthma nurse specialists for my mepolizumab injection and review with my consultant, then the eye pavilion to have tests done on my eye that has lost its peripheral vision and then over to the royal infirmary to see the psychologist and will go up to see work and discuss coming back.

I hope that getting back to work and routine will maybe improve the fatigue I have and give me a purpose to my day again.

The Verdict!!

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I have been fairly quiet recently mainly because I was terrified. I have had 3 doses of Mepolizumab and was due to attend clinic and see my consultant for the verdict and find out if I am staying on it or not.

The good news is that I am staying on it for now.

Clinic went well. I am so glad that I had that horrific hospital admission that made me decide to change consultant because it has been the best thing I have ever done. It has come with some issues but overall it has been one of the best things I have done.

I had lung function and FeNo both of which were marginally better but what I have noticed is that I am more stable overall. Recording my peak flow has been super helpful and I can identify what causes were when they dropped whereas before I had no idea and it was all over the place. I would love my peak flow to increase but I am happy for stability over gains (gains are unlikely due to the fibrosis in my lungs now).

The other difference this consultant has decided on is with regard to my steroids. Previously it has been a rush to get me down to the lowest dose possible and see how I go but that has always ended up badly and I spend more time on higher doses and it felt like I was on a rollercoaster all the time. Now, as much as we want to get me down to a reasonable dose and hopefully off prednisolone (wish me luck) we are acknowledging what has happened in the past and he kept me on 20mg which felt like ages (3 months) and then alternating 20mg and 15mg daily (2 months) and now I am to stay on 15mg until February March time and then we will readdress reducing it further.

So many people have asked me if I think the mepolizumab is helping. It is so hard to stay. I think it must be as I have been more stable but I worry that this is due to the prolonged prednisolone and super slow reduction but what I am hoping that it is a combination of both. I guess the time to tell what is doing what is if I get unwell (touch wood I don’t) and I can see how quickly I can respond to treatment and not need invasive treatment. I am aiming for this as know hospital is going to happen as my consultant has said this. He said he would have no worries about admitting me to hospital if either he or myself thought my asthma was not great.

We are also changing one of my inhalers. For the first time in as long as I can remember I had an outpatient clinic where my medications were reviewed and we looked at what I needed to keep taking and what could get binned. The only change he wants to make just now is removing the seretide inhaler and replacing it with Relvar a newer once daily preventer inhaler. He wants me to continue taking some extra fluticasone at night to tide me over as I still have quite significant dips in my breathing at night.

Im happy I now have a plan. Know roughly what is happening with my asthma and asthma care. Over the winter period I will be seen every 2 weeks. Monthly clinics with my consultant and then in-between I will be up with the asthma nurse specialists getting my injection and review there. Also should there be an issue I just have to call in.

The one thing out of all of this which I cannot let go of is why did it take throwing my toys out the pram and move consultants to be able to get in control of my asthma or have a plan to get control of it. I just want answers and I know I won’t get them but I am now trying the treatments I have been asking about for a good number of years. I know dwelling on it won’t help but when its your life that has been suffering it is hard.

Asthma Death in Children

There is so much research into asthma just now looking at a cure for asthma, better management, getting asthmatics to comply with treatment better but research into asthma death, often a taboo subject to talk about is vital to make any change in the shocking asthma statistics.

Ann an children’s asthma nurse specialist is also one of the PhD students at the Asthma UK Centre for Applied Research. Her PhD is looking to speak to parents of children who have died from asthma.

The importance of this I think is two fold.

Initially the whole concept of this PhD came from one of the Patient and Public Involvement Leads at AUKCAR whose own daughter died from asthma. Having a PPI member come up with the research idea and the centre then backing it really highlights just how much AUKCAR values the patient and public group by implementing project ideas that come from them.

Secondly this PhD is so vital. Only a few months back it was revealed that across Europe, the UK has the worst rate of asthma deaths and a rate that we all hoped would improve after the National Review of Asthma Death (NRAD) was published in 2014. However this is not the case.

In the UK death is very much a taboo subject. People don’t like using the term death or died. You see the term passed away or lost- you don’t lose someone if they die because if you go looking you won’t find them again. Asthma death is just that and I know people who have had family members die from asthma also do not like the term lost.

For the first time research is being undertaken by an asthma nurse specialist who deals with a number of people with severe and life threatening asthma. Rather than speaking to medical staff, Dr’s and nurses Ann is going to be speaking with those directly affected by asthma death. Ann wants to speak to parents or carers whose child has died as a result of asthma. Speaking to you will mean we can learn from your experience and make a change for the future.

Have you been affected by asthma death in the last 10 years (in or after 2008)? Has your child died between he age of 5-24 and you were there with them. Would you like to speak to Ann and help make a change for the future?

All you need to do is email Ann: ann.mcmurray@ed.ac.uk or by phone/ text on 07976582297. You will have a single face to face chat with Ann in a place that you are comfortable which will last no longer than 2 hours.

The study has been reviewed by the West of Scotland Research Ethics Committee 3 (WoSREC3) and Patient Public Involvement volunteers of the Asthma UK Centre for Applied Research (AUKCAR).