COPD: ‘I tell people not to smoke and to live one day at a time’

Sufferers of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease speak about how they cope with their condition

Agnes Mulvihill: “I had two hospital stays with pneumonia and eight chest infections.”

Agnes Mulvihill: “I had two hospital stays with pneumonia and eight chest infections.”

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As the cold and flu season gets into full swing, spare a thought for those who suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a condition characterised by breathlessness, persistent coughing and regular chest infections. While most of us can struggle through with a heavy cold or even flu, anyone with COPD who catches a viral infection can need hospital-based care and treatment. In fact, COPD is the most common cause of disease-specific emergency admission to hospital in Ireland.

Essentially, COPD is an umbrella terms for chronic bronchitis (inflammation and narrowing of the airways) and emphysema (weakening of the structure of the lung). More than 400,000 people in Ireland have the condition, which is often linked to smoking.

As with many chronic conditions, learning how to look after yourself well is a key to coping better with the symptoms. Philip Meehan (62) was diagnosed with COPD in 2014. “I collapsed after refereeing a schoolboy football match and I don’t remember anything else until I woke up in hospital,” he explains. After eight days in hospital, Meehan returned to his home in Tallaght but took some time to get back on his feet.

“I was told to stay warm and not to go outdoors in harsh weather conditions,” he says. He was also advised to eat fewer fatty foods. A former smoker, Meehan gave up cigarettes in 2000 following a serious accident with a race horse. He now uses a nebuliser and an inhaler every morning – and sometimes in the evenings – to keep his breathing in check.”

However, most importantly, Meehan realised that although he couldn’t continue to referee, he needed to find other ways to exercise. So about a year ago, Meehan and other sufferers of COPD set up the Tallaght COPD group. Now every Thursday morning, 15-20 people partake in exercise classes in the Rua Red Arts Centre in Tallaght. “We are like a little family. We look out for each other and the classes help people feel better in themselves,” he says. The classes are run by the social enterprise, Siel Bleu and cost €5 a class for each participant.

Agnes Mulvihill (79) was diagnosed with COPD in 2010, just after her husband, Frank died. She says she had been breathless for a while and had been getting chest infections. She didn’t realise she had the condition even though her husband had suffered with emphysema for years.

‘Much worse than me’

“He was much worse than me. He was on oxygen and nebulisers all the time. I gave up smoking in 1985 but Frank continued to smoke until he died,” she explains. A hiatus hernia which exacerbated her lung condition was operated on in 2015. “I had two hospital stays with pneumonia and eight chest infections before that surgery. Only for the operation, I don’t think I’d still be here,” says Mulvihill, who also suffers from osteoporosis.

Mulvihill lives in a self-contained flat next to her daughter’s house in Athlone, Co Westmeath, and attends a weekly COPD support group meeting in Athlone. An exercise class run by Siel Bleu is held as part of these weekly meetings. “We have a laugh and a chat in between the exercises,” says Mulvihill. To help manage her condition, she takes one inhaler every morning and another inhaler and nebuliser as she needs them.

And what advice would she give to people with COPD? “I tell people not to smoke, to do everything they possibly can on their own and to live one day at a time.”

World COPD Day is on Wednesday, November 21st. To speak to a respiratory nurse specialist, call the COPD National Advice line on Freefone 1800 83 21 46 (9am-5pm, Monday to Friday)

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