Juggling life through a bi-polar lens. Sometimes up, sometimes down. Mostly trying to tread water in the middle. Creating a likeness to a normal life. Whatever "normal" is...

Thursday, 18 October 2007


A visit to the astha nurse, once you're over the age of 10, always makes you feel like you're too tall.

Everyone seems to think that asthma is one of the "childhood diseases" that people either get and grow out of, or manage to miss. We had a charity envelope for an asthma charity through the letterbox the other week. You know- one of those you fill with brown coins from down the side of the sofa and then present to the collector at the door whilst trying to make a "honest, I put a pound in" look on your face, whatever that might be. Well, on the front of the envelope was a photo of a particularly peuse looking child, complete with gooey lips and snotty nose. I don't recall having either during an attack myself, but they seem to be compulsory for illustrating illness, especially when the artist is working in black and white.

The thing is, it isn't an illness that only affects children. I didn't have it till I was 23. I've only had one bad attack, and by bad, I mean a stay in hospital. This was December 1996. I lived alone then, and there was no phone in the flat. I had a bad cold, a bad chest infection on top, and had run out of my inhalers. I lived a long way from the doctor's surgery and had no cash for a taxi. Oh, and I had 4 cats. All these little things meant that the bigger things, like chest pain, and wheezing, grew worse.

I remember wrapping a blanket round me and walking to the public phone box. I called for an ambulance, then sat on a wall nearby and just waited. I think it took about 15 minutes. I then spent 4 days in hospital surrounded by victims of the worst flu outbreak this country had seen in years.

The wards were so full, extra beds made out of trolleys were squeezed in between existing patients: privacy was lost, as curtains could no longer be drawn round each bed. The wards were filthy and stank of stale urine. It took them 48 hours to get round to putting me on antibiotics, and by that time it meant having a drip.

After spending my first night in a nightmarish mixed ward- a senile woman on my right, waving soiled underwear around, a senile man farther down the ward trying to get into the wrong bed over and over, an intolerant yob somewhere in between who spent the dark hours shouting abuse at anyone: nurses, doctors, me, shadows.... I was moved to a geriatric ward in the morning as this was the only one with a space.

Because of staff shortages, I was given a chart that measured my breathing and shown how to fill it in. I was also told to note my pulse at the same time. There was a column for blood pressure, but was told not to worry about that one.

When I had originally reached hospital, samples of my blood was taken. These were lost, so a doctor came along for more. "I don't believe this is a chest infection," he said, "I think you have a blood clot on your lung, and it's very, very dangerous." He said he had to take blood from a different place to be sure, and then extracted some, extremely painfully, from my wrist. He left the bloody needle tip on the bedside table. It was still there the next day. I never saw or heard of him again.

Another doctor came the following evening on his rounds. The nurses presented him with "my" x-rays, which turned out to be those of an 85 year old woman. He eventually dismissed mine, as they were now 48 hours old.

The food was tasteless and cold, but at least I ate it. Plates were left on trolleys next to the beds of old ladies I had never seen move. After no staff had been around to help them eat, these were wheeled away when cold, untouched, leaving the patients to grow more skeletal.

One morning, when someone asked for tea, the steward couldn't find a cup on the tea trolley. They hadn't loaded enough. Spotting one on my bedside table, she asked if I had finished with it -which I had- then shook drips out of it into a bucket, filled it with tea, and gave to the other patient. I had been sipping water from that cup all night.

After 4 days I asked to be discharged. By this time I had caught another infection on top of the one I had arrived with: one that gifted me with diarrhoea and vomiting. The head nurse told me I would "be better off at home with that, if you stay here you'll get worse" so off I went, antibiotics and inhalers in bag.

Once home, I started to get better. The next day I called my employer to ask if they wanted me back on Monday, 23rd December, or should I leave it till after the holiday now?

They had given my job to someone else in my absence.

So you see, asthma isn't just a wheezy kid at the back of the class trying to get out of PE. I did put some money in that envelope the other week, but added a note, it isn't just kids, you know.


Calamity Jane said...

OMG, how awful ... but I believe every word. Funny how the NHS is both my best friend and my worst enemy.

B.T.Bear (esq.) said...

She dident eevn hav a Bear there wiv her! How orfull is that?

Lynda (Granny K) said...

Oh yes, I can imagine your horrific ordeal at the hospital. They are places to be avoided if you can possibly manage without. I was a bad asthmatic as a child, from 6 - 15, then I grew out of it until my 50's when a bad chest infection, coupled with being allergic to my dog, brought it back. I went on the brown/blue inhalers and all was well under control. Now my little dog is no longer alive, my symptoms have cleared up and I only need to use the inhalers when I spend longer than 30 mins where there are animals, (like at my sister's).
My youngest son, who is now 30 started with asthma this year, and it looks as though his little son (aged 3 months) will also be asthmatic they have said at the hospital. He had his first hospital stay when he was 3 weeks old and couldn't breathe because of a chest infection. Hey ho! But Thank God for inhalers, I say!

Helena said...

Calamity Jane,

Yes, sometimes the NHS is a godsend, other times a necessary evil!

Helena said...

Yes, I'm glad we have inhalers now. It's awful when I need a puff and don't have one on me! I'm glad I wasn't born before they were around! (Or dental anaesthetics, but that's another story!)

I hate the brown inhalers. They tell me off for not using them regularly but the things give me a bad throat.

Marit Cooper said...

I linked to this blogpost from Facebook, hope you don't mind.

"Marit Cooper - found this blogpost on standards of British hospitals, having had a taste of it I had to laugh >:-) Yeah, I can see it clearly!"