You don't fully appreciate the simple act of breathing until you can no longer do it. You do it so often that you don't need to remember to do it, your body does it automatically. Until you have an asthma attack.
This post has been sitting in drafts for a while, it's one of those posts that I've been unsure about posting as it's fairly personal and I don't often do 'personal' posts. But alas, I feel it's needed. A few times now when I've had an attack while by myself on public transport, it's struck me how people don't notice what's going on and simply don't know what to do or how to help.
Only once has a woman stopped to help me; she sat me down, got my inhaler out of my bag for me, and made sure I was OK before leaving me to carry on with her journey. Quite often people ignore it, other times they ask if you're OK and repeatedly ask again when you don't respond... they don't realize that often you can no longer see them or hear them, and often you just can't speak (I mean come on, you're barely breathing!). Which leads me to the main point of this post...
What is it like to have a full-on asthma attack, when no one will help?
Usually my asthma isn't too bad, I've had it since I was 14 and I only have an attack a few times a year. But back in November I had a nasty cough that I'd had since September. The cough wouldn't go, it was coming from my chest, and gradually my asthma was getting worse by the week. It would just take a bit of stress at work, a particularly smoggy day in London, or running for the train to trigger it. On this particular day I had ran as fast as I could for the train; from the office to the tube, down the escalators, onto the tube, out of the tube, change tubes, next tube, run as fast as possible up the escalators, out into Waterloo, and onto the train. I made it with seconds to spare.
Usually I'm not fussed about standing on the train (heck, today I stood for an hour on the train), it's only a 15 minute journey to Surbiton where most people get off, and there are far more people who need a seat more than I do. I took a position standing by the pole near the seats - the only space left. I had my winter coat on and my thick woolly scarf wrapped tight around my neck, I could already feel my chest wheezing and getting tight, I was sighing and yawning a lot (I think it's my way of trying to get air in), and I felt hot. So hot. I was feeling irritable and felt the need for fresh, clean air. I stood there in the crowd of people desperately trying to draw breath in to my tightened chest, unable to reach my inhaler due to the train being overcrowded, and not particularly wanting to draw attention to myself anyway.
Gradually it got too much and I needed air. I could feel my lungs screaming in pain, aching from the desperation of trying to inhale air, and my head starting to go dizzy from lack of oxygen, my limbs feeling weak. I pushed past people to get to the window and flung it open. Two woman opposite me started tutting and then the tuts grew into "Oh bloody heck, what did she do that for!? It's freezing!" I gave them a death stare as I struggled to stand, my body limp and held up by the bodies around me pushing me against the pole.
A man shifted as the train rattled on, and I managed to unwrap my scarf from around my neck. My vision started blurring, and the sighing got worse. By this time I was full on gasping for air, desperately trying to get something, anything, into my aching lungs. Not one person even so much as looked up at me from their phone or newspaper. The women just carried on tutting at me about their feeling a little chilly. I gave them a big "f*** you" inside my head.
Finally we reached Surbiton and most of the people got off. By this time I was literally clinging to the pole to keep myself upright, holding on tight as hard as I could, as my hands were so weak they kept falling off to rest by my side, as my knees started bending down towards the ground. I must have looked like a right mess. And not one person gave a shit. I'd love to see the CCTV from that journey.
I clambered past my fellow commuters, grabbing onto the tops of the seats to pull myself along the aisle towards an empty seat. There were a set of four seats, three were now vacant and one gentleman occupied the other. I collapsed onto the two next to each other that were free, and pulled my coat off. By this point I could feel my head drowning, I could no longer see clearly, my vision was blurred and everything was just different colours. I felt like I was about to pass out. My heart was thumping so loudly in my chest I feared everyone could hear it, and my arms wouldn't work.
My weakened arms rummaged in my bag desperately trying to find that little blue tube of life, and finally I found it. The gentleman opposite me asked if I was OK, but I couldn't speak, I tried and nothing came out, it hurt too much. I took a puff but my hands weren't strong enough, it was too weak-a-puff. Another. This time I used every ounce of energy inside of me and hit the jackpot. Another. Another good one. OK. It's OK. I'm going to be OK.
I sat there slumped against the window, and gradually my heart rate got back to normal, the tightness in my chest subsided, I could feel air rushing through my lungs, and my vision came back. My arms took a little longer to get some strength back, and even then they remained weaker than usual for a few hours. Exhaustion set in as the gentleman opposite me asked again if I was alright, I nodded and thanked him, the relief of being able to breathe washing over me.
You honestly don't know how truly beautiful fresh air is, until it's flowing through your lungs after an asthma attack.
I don't think many non-asthmatics know what an asthma attack is like, and I don't think they know the severity of it. As a child your peers at school think it's just an excuse to get out of sports, they don't realize it's deadly and that mentality stays with them into adulthood, people still don't acknowledge or realize how dangerous asthma is. A few years ago an old school friend of mine died from an asthma attack, she was just 17. Her attack caused her to go into cardiac arrest. Three people every day die from an asthma attack in the UK, seriously, this should not be happening.
If you see someone in distress and struggling to breathe, please do the right thing, don't ignore them and hope that someone else will help. Ask them if they're OK, if they're clearly not OK and can't answer because they're struggling to breathe - call an ambulance on 999. Help them before it's too late.
This post was originally posted on Catherine's lifestyle blog, Lux Life.