As we navigate the ebb and flow of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions it’s important that we take stock of how the pandemic has impacted our everyday lives. I believe it’s important that we note not only the hardships but the positive outcomes too.
As an asthmatic, I was identified as an ‘at risk’ person by the Health Service Executive in Ireland (HSE). It was strange to be placed in this specified group, receiving instructions on how to behave to ensure I remained safe and healthy.
An unexpected side effect of this division, however, was that by identifying certain people as ‘at risk’ the health service inadvertently brought attention to chronic conditions like asthma that people live with every day. It has given those of us who live with long-term health conditions the chance to speak up about our experiences and be seen, raising awareness and support.
Asthma is often invisible
I see asthma as a hidden condition. My asthma often flares up at night. I could have a bad episode during the night but be fine the next day, and nobody would be the wiser. On one occasion I had to see the doctor at 1 a.m. because of an asthma attack, but I got up and went to work as usual in the morning. So unless I choose to speak about these experiences, or have to alleviate symptoms with medication during the day, no one would even know that I have asthma.
What does an asthmatic look like to you?
The image of a nerdy, awkward person might spring to mind, because that’s how people with asthma have been portrayed in movies and television over the years. Someone who can’t do things because of their asthma, who is weaker because of it, and who is often the butt of the joke. It’s an asthma stereotype that has been believed by many.
In reality however, there are no unifying physical features that describe a person with asthma. If I had to illustrate an asthmatic they would need to be holding their medication for anyone to know they had the condition. When I go to the supermarket I can’t tell by looking at someone if they have asthma, or mental health issues or diabetes. Many debilitating health conditions are invisible.
Raising awareness for asthma
The Asthma Society of Ireland has worked hard to increase asthma awareness and understanding. The HSE website describes asthma as very common in Ireland, with over 470,000 people in the country suffering from it, and its prevalence has made me very passionate about raising awareness myself.
In 2018 I was delighted to be invited to participate in an awareness campaign. The campaign was titled ‘Stay Well this Winter’ and it involved sharing my asthma story in a short video. I talked about how I’ve learnt to manage my asthma, and how it impacts my day-to-day life. I also discussed the fear and panic I often experience during a bad attack. The video led to me becoming an asthma advocate for the society, and I have since shared by story in interviews and participated in Asthma Awareness Week.
How COVID-19 shone a light on asthma
When the pandemic hit Ireland the Asthma Society of Ireland were inundated with calls and messages from concerned asthmatics. Conversations around asthma and its management were suddenly in the spotlight. I saw people commenting on the society’s Facebook page about their confusion when it came to asthma medication. It was fairly worrying to read how many people didn’t know the difference between the reliever medication and the preventer, despite assumedly living with asthma.
I think being identified as ‘at risk’ was a turning point for many asthmatics. It encouraged all of us to take a bit of time to research the condition and how we manage it daily, to take extra care and precautions and to be more diligent in our asthma management. It reminded me that I have a role to play in raising asthma awareness and understanding, particularly during such a stressful and scary time.
One really positive thing that has come out of the pandemic for me is the realisation of just how aware the people around me are of my asthma. When news of the pandemic hit Ireland I was surprised by how many people came to me with thoughtful concern for my condition and how I would manage over the coming months. People reached out to offer to do my shopping and work tasks to help keep me safe. I always assumed my loved ones weren’t that aware of my condition but luckily I was proved wrong, and I feel incredibly grateful to those that offered me their support. I felt protected by those around me.
Asthma in the media
The media was also interested to know how the people in the ‘at risk’ groups were feeling. I spoke to Arlene Harris from the Irish Independent about how I was coping. The piece was titled ‘Living in fear - the people at high risk for COVID-19’ and it gave me the opportunity to voice my concerns about the virus and how I was planning to manage my asthma over the coming months.
I also spoke in a webinar titled ‘Respiratory Medicine During the Time of COVID-19’. The webinar included the perspectives of doctors working with people with respiratory conditions during the pandemic. The doctors shared their research and findings while the patient advocates had the opportunity to share their experiences of living through a pandemic with a chronic respiratory condition. I learnt a lot from listening to the doctors detailing COVID-19 and respiratory medicine but also from the other patient advocates who spoke about their conditions. It was a great opportunity to speak openly about living with asthma and to learn coping strategies from people living with other underlying health conditions.
While the past number of months have been frightening, heart-breaking and often hard to comprehend, we have all learnt a lot. The pandemic has shone a light on many underlying health conditions, like asthma, that aren’t always visible to those around us. In my experience it has started conversations about the health-related challenges that many people face in their day-to-day lives that we wouldn’t usually discuss. We know more about our neighbours, our colleagues and our friends. We are more aware that people are coping with their own challenges and health concerns. Hopefully moving forward we will have increased support, awareness and understanding from each other.
NPS-IE-NP-00124 November 2020