What was your first asthma attack like?

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.

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Cold to chest infection to….

Getting a cold to many is an inconvenience. To a severe asthmatic getting a cold fills you with dread because generally our lungs are fantastic hosts to cold bugs leaving us with rip roaring chest infections.

During the winter months you cant avoid the common cold, well you could but that would mean you become a hermit and prisoner in your own home. Im not going to do that. I like being out and about too much.

The last two weeks have been pretty hard work. I picked up a common cold which filled me with dread. I think it filled my mum with dread as well especially as she was going away and this is the first time I have picked anything since that last horrific attack.

As with most asthmatics despite my best efforts it went to my chest. I had a great chest infection with an impressive cough that drove me round the bend. Even Ghillie was getting irritated with my constant coughing.

I wish I could say I dealt with this infection well but it has filled me with anxiety and I have not managed it as well as perhaps I may have in the past. I knew the first bout of illness post last attack was going to be hard. I had a fear that I would end up on that slippery slope back down to needing a ventilator. Extreme I know but could potentially be a possibility.

Thankfully staying in touch with my team I was able to keep it at bay and not get too bad. My peak flow has dropped significantly but the antibiotics and increase in steroids have helped bring it back up along with a lot of i still have this irrational fear that really hits me at night that my infection may not be better and I am missing something. Morning comes round and I think I am so silly for getting in such a state about it.

I have been doing less than I would normally do while I have had the infection. Mainly because I have been terrified of making my chest kick off. It has been a strange time because I thought I would be able to write some blog posts, do some other research stuff but I just have not had the imagination or concentration (lack of concentration is something I have been struggling a lot with post ICU).

I am also very happy that I have had my flu jab so my chances of getting flu are reduced. I would urge everyone to get it that can get it!

The good thing is, the infection is clearing well and my asthma has not kicked off too much. Ghillie of course has been very attentive and by my side all the time!

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The gift that keeps on giving!!

Many on long term oral prednisolone will be familiar with the saying that it is the gift that keeps on giving. It is the one medication that gives those who are taking it life but also results in many secondary conditions resulting due to the side effects and the prolonged side effects.

I have written before that I have a love hate relationship with oral steroids. My lungs need them but the rest of my body certainly does not. Recently I have felt that the prednisolone just keeps on hitting me in the face with one thing after another from destroying my adrenal gland meaning unless there is a miracle I will never get off steroids, my bones have been leached of all their goodness and now have osteoporosis, my pancreas is affected meaning I have constantly high blood sugar levels, I have had issues with my eyes as well but never to the extent I do now.

For a good number of years now I have had swollen optic nerves. This has not caused me too much bother other than some pretty bad headaches, these headaches have been getting worse and more often to the point a few weeks ago it floored me. I was in bed the entire day, feeling sick and being sick. I have not had a migraine before but thee headaches are what I imagine they are like.

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I went to my optician last October- I was early for my annual check but I kept getting blurred vision at night and the feeling of having a film over my eyes which no matter how much I rubbed them or put moisturising drops still did not ease the discomfort. At this appointment we discovered I was missing a large chunk of my peripheral vision. I did the visual field test a number of times but each time I kept missing a full 1/4 of the circle in my left eye. Obviously this is not normal so I was referred on to the eye hospital with the final consultant visit the other day. I have been having a variety of scans, tests and drops put in my eyes to try and establish what is going on and the appointment was going to be the reveal all and I was hoping it would be an easy fix and also (clutching at straws a little) it would be something other than an effect from the prednisolone.

Anyway I saw the consultant who needs to speak to another consultant because she doesn’t really know what it is that is wrong but there is something seriously wrong. This did not fill be with hope. You go to the consultant because they know these things and can tell you what is wrong but its more waiting for just now while she speaks to her colleague, she is also wanting me to have a head MRI so they can get a better view of things but Im not really sure how that will help them as I don’t think it will show them anything in more details than they already have but maybe it will.

The long and short of it is I have swollen optic nerves but also the outside of the optic nerve is being compressed so the middle of it is bulging out and there is fluid accumulating with it. They don’t know why or how. They are not convinced it is related to my brain as the headaches I get are not consistent with raised intercrainial pressure which is reassuring. So its back to the waiting game.

Feeling much better and more positive!!

Its now the end of the week and since my last post things have been a lot better. I must say the support I have received over this week from others who also have chronic health issues has been over whelming. It was both reassuring and shocking to read comments from people saying they could have written what I did as it could have been them. This is awful that so many people are struggling with their conditions and feeling isolated but then also gave me reassurance to know I am not over reacting about the situation I find myself in but it is perfectly normal.

But this shouldn’t be perfectly normal when living with a chronic health condition. It has really rocked me reading all these comments. I thought maybe one or two people might have had a period of time feeling similar but not the sheer number. It has really made me want to do something to try and combat this but I am not sure how and I am not sure what to do.

The wanting to do something was reinforced today even more so when I met up with another severe asthmatic in Edinburgh. It was so easy to talk and even though we had only met through a support group it was easy to chat and there was a mutual understanding of how shit life can be with severe asthma and the restrictions it can put on your life.

Feeling a lot more positive about things now and know I am not alone and can ask for help. It is not a weakness to need help but a strength to recognise when you need to ask for help.

Tomorrow I have a busy day as it is the Leith Gala Day at Leith Links and the ICU Steps Edinburgh support group which I am part of have a stall at it to raise some money for the charity and raise some awareness about us and what we are there for. In-between doing that I am at the Sick Kids for the launch of a children’s patient and public involvement group too and will speak briefly about my experience of being in a PPI group. After that a trip up to Thurso to see family to really clear the cobwebs and reset the clock ready to face the world again.

 

Trauma of ICU

Finally I am able to sit down without getting upset or terrifying myself about my latest hospital admission specifically experience in ICU. The photo below may not look like much and you may think its a window and building but this is what has caused me to much trauma.

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Before anyone reads on please note this is just my feelings from it and my experience. The staff: nurses, support workers, physios and Dr’s were all fantastic and could not do anymore to help me.

This admission has rocked me so much. A lot more than any other has and I hope that I won’t ever get like this again.

There was a series of events I think which led to it all becoming too much once I got back to the ward and I guess basically I just broke down with fear that my asthma will kill me.

The lead up to being admitted was really rapid, as I said in my previous post where I spoke about the admission and how it went broadly speaking. What I didnt speak about was the true mental toll it took on me.

As with any trip to ICU in the back of your mind you know its not good because ICU is the end of the road in terms of hospital care you cant get any more treatment beyond what they an offer. I have been to ICU so many times, I cant even count the number of times I have been admitted there and come out the other end.

Once up in ICU there was the usual battle of trying to get a arterial line in which again failed and we decided to stop short of a cut down thank goodness as this caused me to lose the feeling in my left thumb and part of palm. High flow oxygen running various IV infusions and I had this feeling of being safe. I was in ICU and would be ok. Next came review from the consultant who said if things did settle next step is being intubated and ventilated.  I have had the said to me several times so I didnt think much more about it.

It was not until I came back to the respiratory ward that mentally I really found it tough. After starting to feel much better and access being an issue I was keen to be weaned off some of the infusions I was on. This didnt go to plan and a few hours after I really didnt feel to great so I let them know. Junior drs came to review and were concerned. It was late on in the day and about 7pm my own consultant came round to review me- that in itself freaked me as he was not even on the ward team but he came through. He wanted everything put back to the previous doses, have a whole load of nebulisers and be moved to the high care bay for close observations.

It was the move to the high care bay that brought so much flooding back and I felt that I just couldn’t cope at all. I have been in the high care bay before and never had any issues. I already felt quite on edge because by this point I had been seen by 2 consultants out of hours who came to listen to my chest and see how I was, have all my medications increased again and being moved. The move was what was enough to tip me over the edge. Once moved and settled I looked up and out the window and could see the ICU. The photo from above is below and I have marked where the ICU is.

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The combination of what the consultant said in ICU, and then getting worse on the ward and having consultants review me when they would not normally see you come in to review you and then seeing ICU again and the Dr’s talking about taking you back there was just too much. I think it was also because on the ward I was on the maximum treatment for my chest and just not getting better. The consultant was worried because I had been given 36mg of salbutamol via nebulisers with little effect. Thankfully they kept persevering and my airways did slowly start to open and breathing became easier.

Its fine when you are acutely unwell and everyone is buzzing around you making sure your ok, listening to your chest, giving you nebulisers, doing your observations you dont get much time to think or worry about not being able to breathe. Its once your that bit better and left alone and normally left with the parting words- “rest and try to get some sleep” and the lights go out. That is when it hits you. Still feeling not great and still finding breathing a real challenge sleep is the last thing you are able to do. Its a very strange feeling when you are so exhausted you want to sleep but scared to sleep at the same time. Being in the dark makes everything much worse and I just got so scared. I couldn’t help but break down. I was able to speak to a nurse but they could not offer much as its not like there is a magic pill that makes fear go away and because of my chest not being great they cant give you anything to help you sleep. At night with less staff around at night they don’t have the time to stop and speak to you and make sure your ok. but at that time it was all I wanted. They did then send a nurse practitioner up who was great but even he said that the psychological support at night was awful and as nurses we are not good at dealing with things unless numbers tell us something.

Over the course of that night as my chest came and went some nurses kept coming and saying to me all my numbers were looking better so I am doing ok. I think this is one of the statements I hate more than anything. I don’t care that my numbers may be ok or better I still feel like crap and having good numbers does not help with the crippling fear I am experiencing.

Once morning finally came around I felt really stupid for getting so upset but was able to have a chat with the Dr about it. I knew it was a vicious cycle of being upset, makes my breathing worse, which makes me more upset as I get scared it means going back to ICU but it is so hard to get out of that cycle.

The fear of what happened is still plaguing me. More so than normal. I can rationalise going to ICU and the need for their help but this time is just different and I cant get it all out my head.

I am a week out of hospital now and really feel like I am no further forward than I was day 1 post discharge. Everything feels just as hard. I have no idea why. Part of me wonders is it because of the biologic therapy that is making it harder to recover or has this all taken a much larger toll on me than I expected.

I have clinic next week and I hope to go through everything with my consultant and make sense of it all. I also hope he will have a reason for me feeling so rubbish despite being home from hospital.

I think this whole thing has just highlighted that no matter how many asthma attacks you have, or how many hospital admissions you never know when you will hit breaking point or when you just cant keep fighting.

Passive smoking……what does it mean???

apart from death?

I cannot count the number of posts I have done about smoking, passive smoking, the smoking ban and how it effects my lungs and the lungs of many others like me.

It really hit me the other day after parking my car in the carpark at work and walking the 200m to get into the hospital how many people I had to pass firstly at the pedestrian crossing, then the pavement to get to the narrow walkway to get inside the doors and then the narrow walkway itself and the doors was just like running a gauntlet and taking your life into your hands.

24….thats how many people (patients) I had to pass who were smoking on the short 200m walk. It is sickening to have so many people.

Im not sure those who are smoking really understand just what the effect is on other people as there is no way to liken it to anything else. I can never explain the mental and physical negative effects that it has on me (and Im sure I am not alone in those thoughts).

The fear I have is unreal. I am terrified that this is what may happen AGAIN

Both these photos are from the effects of passive smoke which hit me when I was no expecting it. The first photo was just before going to ICU after spending about 8 hours in resus, getting stable, moved to assessment unit to then get bad and need ICU. The second was taken in ICU after someone smoking below my open window and me having an asthma attack.

The fear of having asthma attacks is like no other. There are theories that you can make someone run up stairs with a close peg on their nose and breathe through a skinny straw to simulate what it is like to not be able to breathe but they can always take the peg off and open their mouth.

In the photos above I was so tired I just wanted to give up and stop fighting but you cant. If you give up you risk being intubated or dying. This is the reality. So many people die from asthma attacks that come from triggers that are out with their control. It feels like you are being punished for something you didnt do. It is more than just the attack itself but the consequences that go with it- being off work, missing holidays, medication that causes side effects, family being so worried about you, family needing to look after you to name a few.

Before the ban on smoking there were visible smoking shelters and it never used to be a risk to just get from your car into a building. I am not saying that everyone used the smoking shelter but a majority did and the risk was greatly reduced which matters so much.

My biggest fear in life is having an asthma attack, so imagine being faced with your biggest fear on a daily basis multiple times. It seriously makes me wonder if working is really worth the risk. I don’t know who to speak to about it. I blogged about it, tweeted about it, spoken to my union and will just about tell anyone who will listen. I love my job but it is getting to the point of weighing up risk and reward especially with being on a new treatment. Can I really justify the expense this new treatment will cost the NHS vs exposing myself to a major trigger everyday and risk attacks which could jeopardise the success of the trial.

Anyone who can suggest or make a difference to the smoking obstacle course I face please let me know (I have tried using other entrances but this is an issue at other ones too). as I am desperate now.

 

The Intensive Care Unit

I have written often about being admitted to intensive care or the high dependancy unit or being reviewed by critical care staff and it always something I have just sort of dealt with and not thought to much more about it. That was until last night. I couldn’t sleep for tossing and turning thinking about how many times I have been in ICU or HDU or had the threat of going there.

Why all of a sudden has it bothered me??

Yesterday was the first meeting of the Critical Care Patient and Public Involvement Group (which I will write more about in a post of its own). A room full of patients who have been in ICU or their relatives, Drs and Nurses from ICU and then researchers whose area is critical care.

Naturally when you have a group of patients together you are naturally going to ask how you are linked with the group and I guess what your story is. In the discussion part of it there were 2 other patients who spoke of their experience being in ICU and how it was awful, the worst time of their life and how the Drs and nurses saved their life because their life was in their hands. It was a traumatic experience for them and they have got through it. I heard the saying “surviving ICU” a lot.

“Surviving ICU” was what bothered me and kept me awake. I think maybe I under estimate how bad my asthma is or maybe how sick I get or how dependent on medical staff I am to get me better. I know that my asthma is severe and I know there are many more hospital admissions, HDU admissions or ITU admissions ahead of me and I think i sort of accepted this maybe. It was not until that group discussion that I realised just how traumatic it is, life threatening it is, and how it is not run of the mill to go in and out of critical care. At the time I was able to keep my emotions in check but when I got home and set up my nebulisers that it really hit me. The other people in the group had a one off experience, this is what ICU is meant to be like ideally a never experience but if it is going to happen then once is more than enough not once or twice a year sometimes more.

In my working life you hear about people going to intensive care, its not looking good for them or statements that you mainly go out ICU horizontally not vertically. I think for me I have always come out of ICU so would never dwell on the experience of being admitted. I cant say it is a pleasant experience not being able to breath and having the most toxic drugs that make you feel horrendous to make you better but it gets better, I go to the resp ward recover and get back home. It is how it goes and has been for the last 14 odd years.

So after that meeting and hearing others speak about ICU it has almost given me a fear. In the back of my mind I know there are only so many times you go to intensive care or high dependancy and get out but so far I always get out and sometimes bounce back but then get out again. I think it is the emotions that I could see on the other patients faces when they recalled their experiences that it hit me that maybe I don’t have the right emotion to it. The fear they had and the gratitude to the Drs for saving their life was clear to see. Its not that I don’t appreciate what the Drs do but I guess I just never wanted to admit that Im going to intensive care because its the safest place and I might just be that unwell that action needs to happen quickly. Every attack I have I am terrified that it might kill me and that asthma may just win the battle and Im sure I have surpassed that thought as it is very over dramatic and im young so it won’t happen but seeing younger patients have that fear of death and the unknown.

I have never really expressed my fears of my asthma to those close to me. I try to give the outward opinion that its fine, its life, its been long enough now I should be used to it. I would like to be able to have a conversation with people about asthma and death but would worry they think I am just being over dramatic and its never going to happen. Maybe I should though as a comment  that occurred really hit me and made me think about how those close to me feel and thought about my asthma and health. Recently a very close friend died, my mum was away, I was home but she read a text out loud and said “oh my god she’s died”. My step dad thought it was me that had died not the friend. This really hit me that if they hear something about someone dying they go to me and think it is me. I try so hard to keep well and take my medications etc but its still not good enough. I always knew they worried about me doing to hospital but never thought about the dying aspect of it.

What I find so difficult and I think it includes the whole critical care thing is that in the past I have been rogue with managing my asthma. I was young and didnt understand it and didnt want to accept it so I would increase medication so I could do something only to crash and burn and end up in hospital. That changed after a consultant had a go at me (they were just stern and didnt mess about but i felt awful so took it worse than had I been well) which I well and truly deserved but I stopped messing about and accepted not being well and accepted what I could and couldn’t do. The point I found so hard was that despite this change in behaviour and management I was still ending up in ICU or HDU but not having the good bit beforehand which I had before. To this day I still really cant accept the ICU or HDU admission for nothing. I get it if I was to go and play a game of football have a bad asthma attack and need critical care- I deserved it, I did something my body cant handle but now I try my best and still end up going there and that is the hard bit. Where before if I hadn’t been doing anything attacks would mean hospital and a respiratory ward where now it is resus, critical care and then respiratory ward. With this development what happens when it gets worse……

Lots to think about.