Baz Ashmawy on his brush with death: 'If the flight had been going any further than London I would have died'
TV presenter Baz Ashmawy has opened up about the serious condition which caused his lung to collapse on a flight from London to Dublin, forcing him to undergo emergency double lung surgery.
Baz (41) was travelling on a flight from London to Dublin in 2011, when he suddenly found it extremely difficult and painful to breathe. The 50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy star had felt a build up of pressure in his chest prior to boarding his flight home.
"I got an awful fright. I felt exhausted when I got home, and my missus, Tanja, was in Spain with the kids. She was saying: "You’re exhausted? I’m exhausted minding six kids," to me on the phone. Then my mum, Nancy, happened to come by the house. She was a nurse for 50 years, and she took one look at me and knew that something was really wrong."
Baz went to hospital, where tests revealed that 98pc of one lung had collapsed. Doctors told him that if the flight had been going any further than London, he would have died. He remembers being very agitated as they worked to relieve the pressure on his deflated lung.
"They were having difficulty trying to stab a tube through my breastplate, in a very Pulp Fiction-type of way. It was very painful and I started to go into shock. In the end, they punctured me through the ribs and I could breathe again. Tanja arrived and she was all apologies for not taking it seriously. I like to throw it up to her every now and again in an argument that I was dying and she didn’t believe me."
The Sky One presenter was given a very serious diagnosis of bullous lung disease, which occurs when bullae, or abnormally enlarged thin air sacs, form at the bottom of the lungs, which leads to a reduction in their ability to expand and contract. This adversely affects their role in passing oxygen into the bloodstream. Baz presumed that this problem occurred because he had been a smoker, but it turned out to be a hereditary condition. His late father had it, as does his sister and other family members.
Doctors advised Baz to have surgery on the other lung as well as fix it in place, as if a lung collapses, it comes away from its position. The double lung surgery was severe, and Baz had to lie on his back for four months to recover, which was very difficult. He was filming Baz’s Extreme World at the time and was due to go to Denver, and his doctor’s eyebrows raised when he asked him if he would be OK to wrestle alligators there.
"I was quite blue and depressed about it for a long time, as it took me about two years to fully recover.
"I’m nearly six foot three so I’m a big guy, and I had prided myself on being strong and healthy. I love feeling alive, and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to run, climb or dive any more. I’ve had to make changes in my lifestyle, like casual smoking is something I can’t do now. I have a young family, and they’re a great motivation for me to want to be around as long as I can for them."
A consequence of the surgery to fix Baz’s lungs in place is that they don’t have the same freedom to expand and contract as other people’s do, so he can’t breathe as deeply. He trains hard to counteract this as he refuses to let it limit him.
"I love diving and they told me I couldn’t do it again, but I’m a firm believer that anything is possible. I’ve dived all over the world since the diagnosis, but I’ve trained that little bit harder for it.
"My personal trainer, Anthony Lynch, at EduFit was amazing and he helped me get out of the bed and back to fitness. Sometimes it just takes someone to believe in you and push you. It is tough though, as you can’t take deep breaths to take in oxygen," said Baz.
The problem with the bullae in Baz’s lungs is that they will grow larger and the condition of his lungs will degenerate.
"It’s a deteriorating disease and there’s nothing you can do to stop it, although you can work hard to maximise what you have. I don’t really focus on that because that’s the kind of stuff my missus would worry about, and there’s nothing I can do as that’s just the way it is. I don’t smoke, don’t drink much and try to take care of myself."
Baz is conscious of his mortality as a lot of the men in his family died young, including his Egyptian dad, Mohammed Ussri Ismaill, who died at 52 of lung cancer.
“I feel great at the moment, but yeah long term, you would develop emphysema with this condition. You can maintain it as best you can, but it accelerates easily and there’s no great outcome to it."
Some people with Baz’s condition have ended up having a double lung transplant. He says that the disease has fuelled his ambition to be more adventurous, and it has pushed him to try harder at things and take on new physical challenges. He doesn’t dwell on the negatives and there is nothing he won’t do, he says, as evidenced by his madcap adventures on 50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy.
"You can imagine what I’d be like if I had lungs that worked at full efficiency. Look, everyone has a sad story, and you can either wallow in it and sit on your sofa getting fat and unhealthy, or you can get up off your arse and do the best with what you have. It’s OK to feel sorry for yourself for a while, but then you have to snap out of it. The condition has changed my life in a positive way, because it has made me very mature about my health. The way I look at it is that you can’t let obstacles in life beat you."