"I have had asthma all of my life, but from the age of seven, it became more serious and I would often get, what my parents called 'wind attacks'," says Colet Murphy. "Then, when I was 11, I had an attack so severe that it actually burst a hole in my lung and I lost a lot of oxygen which resulted in me being hospitalised. This started a sequence of severe asthma attacks which landed me in hospital every couple of months.
"For years, I was in and out for week-long stays, being pumped full of steroids until it ran out of my system and then I would be back in again; I was like a Duracell bunny which ran out of power every few weeks," says the 50-year-old Dubliner.
“When I was 16, I had a very severe attack which resulted in me turning blue while the GP had to administer two doses of adrenalin into my system just to keep me alive until the ambulance came. This pattern of hospitalisation continued until I was well into my late 20s and I was better able to understand my asthma and the signs and symptoms [of an attack]. At this point, I had a management plan which helped me to stay out of hospital longer and I was able to have a life during my longer stays of wellness.”
They [doctors] didn't think I would be off steroids or out of hospital long enough to live a stable life
The condition severely impacted Colet’s life. “My parents were told that I wouldn’t see 21 because of the severity of the attacks and how traumatic they were on my body,” she says.
“They [doctors] didn’t think I would be off steroids or out of hospital long enough to live a stable life – but this made me fight to ‘show them’ I would live past 21 and it also made me live every day as if it could be my last. But I made different decisions about anything permanent such as relationships, having children or a home of my own as I was living in a world of expiration and didn’t want to set down long-term roots in case I wasn’t around.
“However, once I got to my 30th birthday, I began to make some more decisions for the longer term so decided to purchase a house as it was the one thing I could pursue on my own. Then I thought I might meet someone special, get married and have kids, but that wasn’t meant to be. I would have loved to have been a mum and will never know if the illness prevented me physically from having children, but I do feel that, emotionally and mentally, not having them was due to being told that I wouldn’t live long enough.
“As a kid, I was never into sports or running around as I wasn’t encouraged to do it, so when I was a teenager, I was more into music, creative arts and home economics – even staying in at lunchtime rather than going for a walk. Then when I left school, my asthma was better managed so I was able to go out with friends but was on high alert for smoke-filled pubs, over-crowded or stuffy nightclubs or anything that would trigger the asthma.
“I had great friends and family who completely understood and were also there for the times when we ended up going from a nightclub to hospital”, after she suffered an asthma attack.
Despite all the difficulties she endured, Colet had a positive outlook on life and knew how precious it was as her beloved older sister died from an asthma attack when they were both in their 20s.
“All of our family have asthma, including my mum and dad who had it growing up,” she says. “But they found ways which helped them to grow out of it and I don’t think they were aware of how severe mine was and why the attacks were so frequent. As each of my three sisters and one brother had it, my parents did their best to manage us all and, as I got older, they almost had me wrapped in cotton wool. Growing up into my late teens and early 20s, there was always an ambulance outside our door for me, so people sort of got used to it and I almost passed it off as routine.
“Angela [who is five years older than Colet] was out celebrating her 26th birthday with friends when she collapsed after running around in a laser tag activity. She found herself short of breath and decided to pop into the toilets to take her inhaler and get away from the smokey room. But, unfortunately, she collapsed and died as the inhaler didn’t relieve her symptoms and she couldn’t get her breath. Her asthma would not have even been as bad as mine but one severe attack just took her; it was sudden and instant. By the time she got to hospital she was already gone. Her heart had already stopped beating before she arrived at the A&E.”
This tragedy was devastating for the family and almost three decades later, Colet is still managing the condition which claimed the life of her sister. She has learned to identify possible triggers (dietary and environmental) and to avoid them; she engages in daily meditation and exercise, where possible; has trialed a number of holistic approaches; and, along with managing her medication intake, always tries to keep a positive outlook.
The Asthma Society of Ireland is a huge source of knowledge for parents, patients, guardians, carers, friends and family
She would advise anyone who has either been newly diagnosed or who has a child or loved one with asthma, to learn as much as possible about the condition and avail of all of the support and information on offer from experts, such as the Asthma Society of Ireland.
“The asthma society is an exceptional support system for helping, not only with education on all things to do with asthma, but it is also a huge source of knowledge for parents, patients, guardians, carers, friends and family and all who want to know more about how to manage their own asthma or those of their loved ones,” she says.
“I use their services often, particularly the WhatsApp number which connects you to experienced asthma nurses [the Asthma Adviceline is 1800 44 54 64,the Asthma WhatsApp messaging service is 086 059 0132]. The society has been so helpful over the years regarding my questions and queries, and I’ve used them a lot recently regarding Covid worries and fears. I was reassured so well and was so glad to have this method of communication available to me.
“I think people need understand that while asthma can be a lifelong illness and does need to be managed well, it doesn’t mean the end of enjoying life to the full and doing all that everyone else can do. Once it is controlled and managed right with a good asthma plan, no one should miss out of being able to lead a normal life when they are well, and when they are unwell, should be able to recover better with support from their GP so they can go back to normal as quickly as possible.
“I often wondered if, when I was growing up with severe asthma which [seemed to] baffle doctors, that if there had been the huge resources available then that there are now, would I have had to go through such a traumatic time with my health, and could this knowledge have saved my sister’s life too? I will always wonder.
“But for anyone dealing with asthma in their lives now, there is such a wealth of help and support available. And to be educated and understand asthma is the greatest gift to helping yourself and your families stay well and cared for.”
- Asthma Awareness Week takes place from May 1st-7th. To join the Asthma and Allergies Conference on Thursday, May 5th from 7-8 pm visit asthma.ie