‘My asthma nearly killed me’

Olwen Fish, 69 from Waterhead, Oldham, has had asthma since 1950. She feels lucky to have survived to see the huge increase in effective medication and now lives life to the full. 

“I was only 13 when I first experienced asthma in 1950. It was terrible because not many people had heard of it in those days. All I knew about asthma was that my aunt had died from it three years earlier at the age of 42.

“It came on in the middle of the night. I woke up and I couldn’t breathe. I was really frightened. I’d been out in the pouring rain the day before and I had a hole in my shoe. My parents always stressed that we weren’t to let our shoes get ruined because it wouldn’t be possible to mend them. I was frightened to death because I thought not being able to breathe was my fault.

“I didn’t dare mention it and I tried to cover it up, but my mother saw that I was unable to breath and took me to the doctor. He said it was asthma and he gave me an injection, which helped.

“The doctor also gave me some medicine, but it tasted like poison. I just wasn’t able to take it unless I really couldn’t breathe at all.

“When we were leaving school, all my friends wanted to go and work in the cotton mill, but I couldn’t because of the dust. I had to work in the sewing factory. 

“I was having asthma attacks that lasted three days. It was horrible, not being able to breathe. I was really ashamed and tried to cover it up. I don’t know why I felt that way, but it was such an unknown thing in those days.
“Not being able to breathe is awful. If I was walking up a hill, I couldn’t talk. And there was no medicine I could take then. 

“I often had attacks in the night when I was sleeping in the same bed as my two sisters. I would be wheezing and they would get mad at me. They thought I could stop it. They didn’t understand it. Nobody understood it.    

“Later, I got married and had four children. When I was pregnant, I never had any asthma. I’ve been told it was because the body makes its own steroids when you’re pregnant.

“When I had a really long attack, my husband had to take time off work and it was sometimes difficult for me to take the children to school. I had to give up work when I was 53 and now it has become chronic asthma. I have it all the time but I’m very grateful that we have such good medication.

“Asthma runs in my family. My father’s sister died of asthma when she was 41. My son started with it when he was two and my daughter developed it when she was 13, like me. My eldest grandson had childhood asthma, but has not got it now, and I have another grandson who was diagnosed with asthma at two and still has it. My sister was diagnosed with asthma at 50, my niece was diagnosed when she was 12, and I have cousins who also have it. 

“I began using an inhaler when I was about 40, and in my 50s I began using a nebuliser.

“I first realised my asthma could kill me when I was 62 and I collapsed in the street. I knew I needed help. It was a very hot day, which is always difficult for me, and I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t use my inhaler because I couldn’t breathe in. They’re no use unless you can breathe in. I’d forgotten my mobile, but I managed to get to a phone box to phone my husband. I was holding on to the door handle when I began to slip down to the ground.

“There were some young men in their early 20s nearby drinking outside a pub. I heard one of them say: ‘Leave her, she’s just drunk.’ Luckily, two of them brought me into the pub and laid me on the floor in the games room. The landlady, who later told me she had had a few brandies, couldn’t find a pulse. She saved my life by giving me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Everyone cheered when I came around. Later, when the ambulance took me to the hospital, I had a respiratory arrest and actually died for some time.

“I’ve taken it very seriously since then. I go for regular check-ups and use all the latest medications. I’m thrilled to bits that I have all these things. It’s a luxury to me to know that when I get really short of breath, I have all the inhalers and medications I need. I’ve found going to the Breathe Easy support group meetings very helpful.

“My asthma is now well under control. The Chest Clinic allows me to manage my own steroids and I’m on maintenance doses of several drugs and use the nebuliser every morning and night. I also have inhalers that I can use when I need them. With all these medications, I really have had a new lease of life.”

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