No-one is immune from a near fatal asthma attack.

Once again asthma has been in the press for all the wrong reasons. Despite the National Review of Asthma Deaths (NRAD) in 2014 it appears nothing has got much better. It was announced that asthma deaths in England and Wales (Scotland was not mentioned) are at their highest in over a decade. Over the years I have always asked why, why does asthma kill, why is asthma not well managed.

Well the other week I was reminded just how bad asthma can be and how it can never be under estimated. If asthma wants to win it will win despite all you do.

All the weather we have had recently has taken its toll on my asthma control. I tried so hard to ensure I was listening to my body, and make any changes that it required to ensure my lungs and asthma were stable. I found it very tricky to know what to do because unlike when you have a bad infection or cold you know roughly how long they will last and how much to step up medication to keep your asthma in check. This time it was different, it was the weather than was making life hard but it was not consistent. In the morning I was finding the weather was very muggy and humidity high making it feel like I was breathing through cotton wool but as the day went on the air cleared and I found it a lot easier to breath when the humidity dropped. It was like this for several days in a row and then perhaps there was a day where the humidity was ok. This made it a bit of a conundrum as to how to treat my breathing as I was not convinced an increase in steroids was going to help.

I reached out and spoke to my asthma nurse specialist at the hospital on the Monday. She gave me a plan which I followed however by Wednesday I was really struggling so I reached out to my consultant and spoke to his secretary to get some advice. I felt like I was in that limbo phase. I had increased my steroids on the Wednesday morning as per advice I got on Monday. I was finding it really hard going but was not at the stage of needing to call and ambulance and go to hospital but I need some help. Long story short I couldn’t get through to my consultant and then it was too late for me GP and there was no appointments so I was seen by the out of hours Dr who then sent me up to the hospital. From then it went downhill and went downhill very very quickly resulting in going to ITU.

I am going to do a separate post about the ins and outs of what happened when I deteriorated but with this post I wanted to focus on the importance of getting help.

Initially when I got better I was going over and over in my head trying to figure out what I missed or what went wrong for things to go downhill so quickly and escalate beyond measure. But there was nothing. I could not have tried to get any more help than I did, even getting help earlier would not have made a difference because the days before I spoke to the nurses the weather was ok and my breathing was not too bad (not great but not awful). The advice they would have given me would have been the same and that was to increase my prednisolone if my peak flow got to a certain level which I implemented when it did drop.

I consider myself to be some who has a good knowledge of asthma. I know about as much as I can about the condition. I take my medication religiously and don’t miss doses ever yet I was still able to have an asthma attack which was considered near fatal. There is a big push trying to ensure that people take their medications as prescribed and be vigilant with their asthma. Asthma is a disease that needs to be respected it does not stop and wait for anyone. It is important to remember that just taking your medication as prescribed does not make you immune from having asthma attacks. Getting to know your asthma, what triggers it, and what actions to take are so important. Had I not known all I do I am pretty sure that I would not be here.

I would urge everyone with asthma to make sure they take their medication as prescribed, know what triggers your asthma, have an asthma action plan and know when to get help and who to get help from. This really can save your life.

(I will be doing a further few posts about recent events. One which I will have password protected as it will go into detail about events in ICU etc and I know some may not want to read it. IF you want the password please do message me for it).

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!!

Are asthmatics who post on social media one reason why asthma is considered as “just asthma”?

How often do we read or hear that asthma is “just asthma” and an inhaler will fix it all. Everyone knows someone who has asthma but not everyone knows how bad asthma can be and that it kills people. 3 people die each day in the UK compared to the 10 across the United States. I am not saying that 10 is acceptable but compared to the UK it is far better. In fact the UK has the worst asthma death rate for a developed country.

The big question is why do we have such bad statistics?

We have the National Health Service, Asthma UK, 2 dedicated research centres- the Asthma UK Centre for Applied Research and the Asthma UK Centre in Allergic Mechanisms in Asthma which is providing asthmatics with cutting edge technologies and trying to get a better understanding of asthma, the different types of asthma and best ways to manage it. Despite having all this, asthma as a condition is horrendously underfunded when you compare the funding given to cancer or heart disease. Asthma is way more prevalent yet still not fully understood. To begin to understand asthma, and the different phenotypes (types) there needs to be a huge input of money much like there is for other conditions.

Why is money not being given to improve outcomes of those with asthma? 

I believe that we as asthmatics have a role to play in this specifically the role that we play on social media. Over the last decade social media has exploded. Everyone (although there are some exceptions) uses social media of some sorts wether it is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn. It is used for both social and professional use and although there are some restrictions in place you can post pretty much anything and it can be available to most who are looking for it.

I use social media in a number of different ways. Through Facebook, Instagram and my blog I can share my advocacy work and awareness about the condition, how I deal with it both the negatives and the positives, and also new medications that are coming out as well. Twitter is an excellent vehicle for knowledge exchange specifically for research as you can share snap shots of what is happening and not need to search a website and read through screeds of stuff.

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On Facebook one of my roles is that I moderate and administrate several support groups for those with asthma, severe asthma, difficult to control asthma etc. I feel very honoured that I have been asked to become a member of the admin team for these groups however it is tricky. Many of these groups can be accessible to anyone who wants and people can post what they want, equally they can post what they want on their own pages too. I believe this is where asthma or more specifically asthmatics get a bad reputation and unfortunately when someone reads something in one place then an entire groups can be tarnished with the same brush.

What am I actually talking about? I often get into trouble or arguments with people because they are not acting responsibly and not taking their condition seriously. This would be fine if they were keeping this to themselves but many are not, instead it is being shared on social media. For example:

“my breathing is really bad and having to use way more nebulisers than I should so need to go to hospital but I have stuff to do first”

This type of thing I come across on just about a daily basis and it makes my blood boil. We have a role wether we like it or not to take our asthma seriously and get help when we need it. Part of me feels that anyone on the outside seeing this would think why should be invest lots of money in asthma when those with asthma are not being sensible with it.

I firmly believe if you need to get help you need to get help, a shower, shopping, housework etc can wait. If you don’t wait you might not be there to do it in the future. No one likes going to hospital and many with severe asthma spend a lot of time going to hospital resulting in admissions and plans changing. It is not ideal but it is what it is.

I have had 2 friends die from asthma and know of many others through my work with Asthma UK and being involved in support groups that have also died. For some of them the reason they died most likely could have been avoided had they got help when they first started feeling unwell. I am sure if I was able to ask them they would say they wished they got help sooner as they might still be here now.

I use the examples of these 2 friends in response to comments people leave like above. This will often cause many to get angry with me but if you are unwell you need help there and then. People do not see this and expect sympathy and attention but if you do not act responsibly then you are not going to get sympathy. If you really want to live then you need to go and get help. There have been times when I have just wanted to pretend asthma is fine and I don’t need help because I have something on and don’t want to miss it but then I think of Dawn and it jolts me back to earth forcing me to get help.

Wether we like it or not we are ambassadors for the condition. The outward projection we give I think has a large part of why asthma is not taken seriously. I am blunt and will say to people that if they want their asthma to kill them then they are going about it the right way. It is very blunt but it is the reality.

I know for sure there will be people who read this and have posted irresponsibly  who will be angry. I do care that they will be angry but at the same time I don’t because what we post on social media can influence others with asthma who may be new to the condition and they don’t know any better and think what they read is ok to do. Remember asthma can kill anyone not just those with severe asthma so those new to the condition may see stuff and think because someone who has had asthma longer than they have must know best and it is ok but it is not. We must lead by example and if we are not going to then we must keep this private and to ourselves.

So how much is social media playing a role in the reputation that asthma has. I will continue to try and get people to understand why asthma must be taken seriously and that when you need help for your breathing you need help and should not go and have a shower etc first because you think this is the priority.

I am an ambassador for asthma as we all are. Asthma needs to be respected much like other chronic health conditions are and it is not acceptable to post irresponsibly on social media for others to see and be influenced by. We desperately need more funding to understand asthma better and if we can do our part to help achieve this we might get there quicker than we are now.

Rant over but bottom line is: social media can be toxic in how people view asthma because of what those with asthma post for the public to see.

RIP Dawn

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Pollution and its effect on my asthma

It is well known that pollution makes asthma worse. There has been a lot of information in the press about this and how there needs to be low emission zones in major cities to try and increase the air quality. Recently an inquest ruled that the death of a young girl from asthma was due to pollution exacerbating her asthma which resulted in an attack that killed her. It is scary to see just what pollution can do.

I can see the effects of pollution on my own asthma. Since getting my smart peak flow meter I have been able to track my peak flow for a prolonged period of time. Previously I have always done my peak flow but did not record it (mainly because I am lazy and printing off a peak flow chart on paper was a faff and when I did print it off it would get wet as I keep my peak flow etc in the bathroom with my medication so I just gave up) so having the result blue tooth to my phone has been great.

I have had to ability to print off the charts month at a time or even week at a time if I want. The most useful thing I have found by doing this is the ability to identify points where my peak flow may have dropped or increased and then refer to my diary and see if there was anything that may have caused the dip.

For example the picture below shows my peak flow. The 2 yellow arrows mark when I went to London which shows a significant drop in my peak flow which then increased again once I returned home to Edinburgh. This drop was despite wearing a carbon filter mask to try and protect myself as much as possible.

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I am not sure what else I can do to try and protect my lungs from the pollution in London other than not travel there. The mask I use is high grade, I take my medication, I also try to make sure the windows are shut and I am outside as little as possible so I am not breathing in too much toxic air.

Conversely to this I was recently up in Thurso- just about as far north in mainland Scotland that you can go (except Dunnet Head) where pollution levels are very low I noticed my peak flow actually increased. Perhaps a combination of being at the far north of Scotland, away from major roads, away from major cities with large amounts of traffic and being right on the coast with sea air (sea air has historically been promoted as good for the lungs- it might be an old wives tale).

The chart below is my peak flow and the yellow arrow is when I was up in Thurso.

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I think from this I can clearly see the impact of air quality on my lungs. Edinburgh is a real mixed city as there are some areas which have horrific levels of pollution and other areas that are not so bad. I am fortunate in that I live fairly near the coast and not right in the city centre but it is still fairly polluted where I am.

What steps can I take to improve my lung health and avoid pollution?

  1. I would love to move away to the country somewhere near Loch Tay as I love it up there and the clean air would really benefit me. There is little traffic and no big industrial sites near by. Unfortunately due to the nature of my asthma this would not be feasible as there is no major hospital near me so if I was to have an attack it would be a long wait/trip to get help and to a hpspital
  2. Try and ensure I wear my mask when I need to so I am breathing the best air I can. Despite having a complex about wearing my mask I need to protect my lungs at all costs and if this means wearing a mask then I must.
  3. Keep an eye on the pollution levels and act accordingly. If I know the pollution levels are rising I should perhaps increase my inhalers to counter act the symptoms I may get (I will check this with my team before acting on this).
  4. Get out and about as much as possible down to the coast to breath in good clean air and not stay stuck in the city all the time.

Essentially there is no easy way to avoid pollution but I can see the detrimental effect pollution has on my lungs via my peak flow results. It would be wrong of me to recognise this and not act on it. I must get a plan and put it in place to protect my lungs from more damage which breathing in toxic air might do.

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(Me on the left wearing my Cambridge mask while in London at the Asthma UK Centre for Applied Research Annual Scientific Meeting)

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.

 

International Nurses Day

The birthday of Florence Nightingale it is only natural that this is also international nurses day given she was the founder of modern nursing as we know it.

When I left school I was the last person anyone would have thought would be a nurse. All I did was sport, all I talked about was sport. I was sport and it was all I had. A series of events happened in life and I had to rethink my career and I somehow ended up doing nursing and I could not be happier!!! I had so much fun doing my training and then got a job in an area I never thought I would end up but being a renal nurse is pretty special and I don’t think any other area you will get the same relationship between nurses, patients, Drs and families.

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This photo was taken just after we passed our final OSCE’s in 3rd year!!!

I miss putting on my cornflower blue uniform everyday. I loved being a nurse and will be back as a nurse when my lungs get better. Being a nurse is hard work, busy, never time for a rest and you never know what will happen next but seeing the improvements in patients is the best feeling you can have. Even if it is the little things like sitting chatting to them or helping them with a wash and getting their own clothes on, it is so rewarding. For me it is even more special as I have been on the receiving end of nursing care so many times and the nurses that take that extra bit of time to just do that little something means so much to me.

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This uniform means so much to so many. For me it gives me a purpose. While not being in renal this year I keep my uniform out so on days when I am feeling dejected and thinking about what I should be doing had my health not stopped me, it is there reminding me what I am aiming to get back to. My life as a nurse is not over, it is temporarily on hold, while I focus on research and getting my health better so I can go back to doing what I love with a body that can cope and the energy to give it my all.

I also owe my life to nurses. Having asthma like I do and requiring hospital treatment, admissions and appointments I come across a lot of nurses. The nurses have made sure I am alright, helped me wash when I am too weak to do it myself, helped me go to the toilet when just moving from the bed to commode is too much for my lungs, even just holding my hand when I am finding the situation terrifying because every breath is a fight and requires more energy than I can muster. The presence of a nurse just being there adds this security so I know I am ok.

When you live with a chronic condition which lands you in hospital fairly often you end up getting to know the staff in the wards. For me it is the respiratory ward. I always end up going to the same one now particularly since moving consultants. I also have to go to the respiratory ward once a month for my mepolizumab injection which is given to me by the asthma nurse specialists who take such care and will always answer questions I have or even just reassure me that I have done the right thing. One draw back which when I am not in hospital it is not a draw back is that the nurses now know me well. They will not hold back when they know I need pushed and just to buck up a bit. They will tell me to stop being stupid or stop being grumpy etc, at the time I hate them for it but I know they are doing it for my own good otherwise I would wallow in self-pity until I snapped myself out of it. Equally those nurses know when I am not doing well and am struggling, because they know me they know when something is up.

In NHS Lothian there is an awards night which celebrates the work of different people across the trust. Not only nurses, but Dr’s auxillaries, domestics anyone. The shortlist has just been released and it was fantastic to see one of the nurses from Ward 54 (the respiratory ward I attend) is up for Nurse of the year. I am thrilled as he is super. I have known him for a number of years, he is always so caring and takes time with his patients even when he has 101 things to do you never feel like you are being rushed, he gives you the time you need. He also always speak to your relatives and takes an interest which is really special. Nurses just now are stretched beyond belief, moral is low and nurses are required to do more and more jobs than before but with this nurse you would never guess. I really hope he does win the nurse of the year as he is so genuine and acts the same way to all his patients.

I want to thank all the nurses who have looked after me and worked with me. If it was not for them I would not be here.

The uniform that saves me, is it drowning me at the same time?

Since my attack at the end of November/ December I have really struggled mentally and physically. The initial recovery was good, my lung function returned to my normal fairly quickly and my energy stores were up, I was able to get about and get on with my daily routine without much limitation. Reducing steroids was a bit hairy but with the help of my consultant and asthma nurses we managed to keep on top of things although the reduction has only got as far as 30mg but hey its better than 60mg.

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I was confident this speed of return was due to the new treatment I am on but now I am not sure. I think a lot of it probably was at a basic level. The treatment helped me get back to my baseline to function quickly but Im not sure it got me to the baseline for work. I was excited to get back to work but I wonder now if it was too quick and the timing didn’t help. Looking back now despite reduced hours apart from the first week I was never able to get away on time because there were patients who needed to be seen and I was the only one about. I already arrive 30 mins early for work (this is my choice) because I have worked out that this is when there are the least number of people smoking outside the doors mainly due to breakfast and drug round on the wards! Many say that I can get the ward to see the patients etc but being a patient and having had this done to be it breaks the patient nurse relationship and you lose confidence in them so for me it is not an option.

But i now need to put my own health first. I keep going round in circles with it and I love my job and love working with the patients etc but then I get my body into such a state and I often don’t realise it until I am told. Last week I noticed patients commenting on how awful I looked and should I be in work, the people I was in the lift with would ask if I was ok because I was so wheezy, the finally after spending a weekend in bed and thinking I felt better I went into work to be sent home by one of the other charge nurses because I felt so awful and sounded it.

Part of living with a chronic illness is that you don’t often know how bad you are feeling until your on your knees. I know a lot of patients have said the same that they didnt realise how unwell they were until we got them on a treatment and it is once they are established on this that they really see how unwell they were. I think is how I feel that things just decline slowly and it takes a huge attack or event to stop the downward spiral and start getting better again.

Going back to the title of this post. I love putting on my uniform, I worked hard to be able to get it and then be able to keep wearing it. It is also the uniform the nurses who look after me wear as they get me back on my feet and my lungs working a bit better. But then I also wonder if my drive and love of work is also what is causing me to not get to my full potential of wellness. I am really torn with what I should be doing and need to stop and evaluate what is important to me and what is in my best interests.

I have an appointment with my consultant this afternoon where I am going to ask his opinion as I really cant continue as I am. I am back to the point of living to work and that is it. I love my job but need to have more to life than work.

I wish my lungs felt as good as these ones do!!!!

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