People often ask me what it’s like to experience an asthma attack. How it feels during and after, what the medications do, etc. The questions are endless and sometimes rather bizarre.
The question I get asked most often is: When did I have my first asthma attack and what was it like? Frankly, I don't remember the first attack I ever had. I was very young when it happened, way back when I was first diagnosed with asthma.
What I can tell you about is the first attack that I remember that put me in hospital. It was probably the most terrifying thing I had been through, which is probably why it’s so hard to forget. Strangely I don’t remember much about the actual attack, only details about what happened before, and after in the hospital.
A scary night
I was at boarding school at the time, and must have been about 13 or 14 years old. My asthma was causing me problems which resulted in an attack during the night.
Having an asthma attack in a dorm with five other girls was scary. I didn’t want to wake anyone up just because I was having an attack and I tried to handle it myself.
Eventually, after lying in the dark for what seemed like forever, I woke someone up who got the housemistress to come and see me. She got the school nurse who took me to the medical centre. But the attack didn’t ease up, so I had to go to the hospital. Trouble is, the town my school was in didn’t have a major hospital, so I had to go the nearest city via ambulance.
I remember the ambulance ride vaguely. The main thing I recall was my housemistress trying to comfort me and telling 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 can vividly remember the flashing blue lights and the sound of the wailing siren.
A difficult time in hospital
Initially, I was given a treatment that caused some unpleasant side effects. I remember feeling a hot flush all over my body, as well as the sensation of needing to pee. It felt like I had wet myself. I was young and embarrassed, so I didn’t say anything to anyone. Instead, I was praying for a moment where I was alone and could check if I had. No one told me about this potential side effect – in fact no one told me about side effects at all.
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, I was very young (I'm still unsure why I wasn’t in paediatrics) and very scared.
I really wanted someone to be with me. Which is strange, because when my housemistress was around I wanted to be alone, but as soon as she left I longed to have that awkward, mindless chat back. Luckily, my mum was coming up from Edinburgh in the morning.
I don't think I got any sleep that night. I was apprehensively waiting for the doctor to make their ward round, eager for good news. I desperately hoped they wouldn’t identify any more whistles in my chest, that my peak flow had increased, and that I could go home.
Then again, even without the apprehensive wait, I don't think there is ever a time you get a full night’s sleep when you’re in hospital!
Hospitals are full of people from all walks of life, all going through a difficult time which means all sorts of things can happen there. As a young person in particular, I witnessed a few things that I’ll never be able to forget.
Eventually, the doctors allowed me to be discharged. I still had to regularly visit a respiratory clinic in Dundee, but this felt like the smallest compromise compared to what I had been through.
Although this was not my first asthma attack, it is the main one I remember being in hospital for that I can recall clearly. The photo below is one of the only photos I could find from around the time of the attack. It was just after I won the 1500m race at sports day at school.
Every asthma attack is different
When I think back to my various asthma attacks over the years, there is one emotion that is always present: Fear.
No matter how mild or severe the attacks are, I always experience the fear that comes with not being able to breathe. To have an asthma attack and not be scared is, in my opinion, impossible.
People often tell me how great I am because I’ve always managed to overcome my (often severe) asthma attacks. They think that because their attacks aren’t as severe as mine, they can’t complain to me about them. But every attack is scary!
For each individual person living with asthma, their worst attack is their worst attack. You can only compare your asthma attacks against your own, and nobody else’s. Yes, some people’s worst attack may not have resulted in a hospital admission, but that does not mean it is any less scary than the ones that have put me in intensive care. Which is why you may be able to share knowledge and coping skills when speaking to others about asthma attacks, but it’s never good to compare severity. In the end, it is all relative.
UK/MED/20/0049 February 2020