Taking a breath is the first thing and the last thing we do in life. It is something we do automatically without thinking, even while we sleep, even if we are unconscious. The statistics are ‘breathtaking’. On average, a person at rest takes about 16 breaths per minute. This means we breathe about 960 times an hour, 23,040 times a day, and 8,409,600 times a year. These numbers increase for children and for those who exercise. Most of the time we do not even notice that we are breathing – it just ‘happens’.
Some years ago I signed up for Irish set dancing classes, but after a few lessons found that I was so out of breath that I could barely continue. I put this down to being unfit, even though I was a regular walker, and often took to hill walking that I enjoyed. A few weeks later I contracted a chest infection that was so challenging that I thought I had reached the end of my days. Eventually after many doctor’s visits, a chest consultant diagnosed the condition, and I was put on a medicine regime that got me out of the woods. But my life had changed forever.
I was now a COPD patient and have become aware of every single breath I take. I had heard of COPD before from a friend who had a family member who suffered with it. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is the long name for a condition that covers a range of chest complaints. COPD is an incurable and progressive disease of the lungs. In about 80% of cases it is a consequence of smoking cigarettes,which I had done,although I had quit about 16 years before the diagnosis.
I was so so blessed to have a great GP and an excellent Respiratory Consultant at the Mid West Regional Hospital. Between them they set me on a course to manage this awful disease, and I am very thankful that for the most part it does not interfere with my normal life. Of course there are times when even taking a step can be a challenge, when simple things like bending down to pick something off the floor results in awful coughing and gasping for air, when someone’s strong perfume leaves me breathless! When first diagnosed I tried everything to find out about the disease in Ireland, but the only hits Google returned were American sites and so I joined one of them to develop strategies to deal with exacerbations and to keep well. In 2013 COPD Support Ireland was formed to act as an advocacy body and to support those living or caring for someone with COPD.
Just before Christmas 2015, I was invited to take part in filming in Dublin as part of an initiative to raise awareness of women who suffer from COPD. COPD Support Ireland and Novartis International AG,(a Swiss multinational pharmaceutical company), who manufacture COPD medications, had come together to produce informational films on COPD. I cannot adequately describe the feelings on that day, meeting fellow COPD sufferers for the very first time. Three other truly inspirational women with COPD were there for the filming. They have reached stages that are so much more severe than mine yet they are positive, funny, determined and truly inspirational!
Gerardine – beautiful, elegant, courageous. She had never smoked in her life, yet has been afflicted with COPD. Such quiet dignity – a truly impressive woman.
Paula – funny, laughing woman who dispensed an aura of kindness and compassion such that I had not experienced before. She exuded positiveness in a most inspirational way and it was a total joy to be in her company.
Pauline- a wonderful woman who, on the day we met, was struggling with her COPD, yet is always ready to help others. Pauline has done trojan work to raise awareness of COPD in Louth and is the chairperson of the Louth COPD Support Group. You can see and hear Pauline here.
The World Health Organization estimates that more than 3 million people died of COPD in 2012. Untold millions suffer from it across the world. There is an annual World COPD day that takes place each November to raise awareness of the condition.
It is possible to lead a normal life with COPD, especially in the early stages.
Top priorities for me are to avoid anyone who has a cold or flu symptoms, have fastidious hand hygiene and encourage others to do likewise, and avoid irritants like tobacco smoke, strong perfumes, hairspray, dusty atmospheres, and never ever miss medications. I have lugged my trusty nebulizer across the world on several occasions – it has been on three trips to Australia and caused consternation at several airport security points
I have never spoken of the fact that I have COPD. Very few of my friends are aware that I am a sufferer, although they would know that I sometimes get a really bad cough. Today I am proud to stand up and be counted with these wonderful courageous women,Pauline, Paula and Gerardine.
Many thanks to COPD Support Ireland, Damien Peelo their CEO, Novartis and most especially, Gerardine, Pauleen and Paula for inspiring me to go public about an awful disease, possibly self-inflicted in my case, but nonetheless a disease that deserves the attention and investment of governments in support of the legions of sufferers worldwide.
So the next time you stand at the coast and breathe in the clear air, or stand on top of a challenging mountain breathing in the crisp clean air, or bend over to smell a beautiful rose, think of those of us who have to work hard to take that breath that comes naturally to you and love what you are experiencing for it is not guaranteed to all of us.