Breathing for life: Huge progress in asthma treatments
When she was in her 30s, Breda Flood was diagnosed with allergic asthma. Now, says Joy Orpen, things are much easier for the retired school principal, thanks to better treatments and well-informed supports
Having asthma is like trying to breathe through a soggy straw. That is how Breda Flood (63), from Co Wexford, describes this often frightening condition, which causes the airways to become constricted, making it difficult to breathe.
It's a problem that only arose when Breda was in her 30s; nonetheless, she's had to work hard to stay on top of the situation. But, fortunately, she has learned that she is not alone and that there is help out there.
Breda had a perfectly normal, happy childhood growing up in Kilkenny.
The eldest of six children, she loved sport, which is not surprising, given that her uncle was the champion hurler Mick Morrissey. "He played for Wexford and won three All-Ireland medals," she says. "Sport has always been part of my life. I coached local teams in hurling and camogie for years."
After school, Breda became a primary teacher and began working in a school in Co Carlow. Soon after, she met Brendan Flood, a young farmer from Gorey and eventually they married and now have a son, also called Brendan, and a daughter, Anita, and six grandchildren.
So life was pretty idyllic; Brendan Senior was busy on the farm, while Breda's career led her to become a school principal. But the sense of certainty changed 30 years ago, when she got bronchitis, which was followed by viral pneumonia. Upon returning to work, it became obvious she was not fully recovered. "I still had a wheeze, a bad cough and I was very hoarse," she recalls.
So she had a bronchoscopy, which involves using a tiny camera to give doctors images of the inside of the airways and lungs. "I was sedated during the procedure, but conscious," she says. "My chest had felt as if it had loads of gunge inside it. During the test, it emerged my lungs were perfectly clear. I was so surprised."
Consequently, doctors ascertained Breda's airways had been damaged by the viral pneumonia; this problem was further exacerbated by her sensitivity to certain substances. So they came to the conclusion that she was suffering from allergic asthma. It then emerged that her father, Ned Morrissey, a well-known horse breeder, had suffered from asthma when Breda was a child, but she says she "never even saw an inhaler in the house". Things weren't all that much better when she got her own diagnosis in 1983.
"I was given an inhaler and medication and told to get on with it. The first 10 years, my asthma wasn't controlled. Because my airways were damaged, they were more prone to infection, and the infection would then trigger the asthma," she explains.
In 1992, Breda joined the Asthma Society of Ireland (ASI). "At that point, the only information I could get was from the library, and even then, it probably had little relevance to my situation," she says. "So I attended the ASI's annual roadshow, where they were demonstrating the use of inhalers and peak-flow meters. There were people offering printed material and advice about triggers such as house dust mites - this was all very new to me."
She explains that the ASI is one of 16 member organisations of the Irish Lung Health Alliance (ILHA) working to promote lung health.
In 1995, Breda was referred to St Vincent's Hospital, where she was assessed before being given a management plan, which included a list of medications that trigger her asthma. "I'd had a severe reaction to non-steroidal anti-inflammatories in the past, and realised I needed to be careful," she says. "But I also learned that I have to watch out for penicillin, even though it is generally quite good for people with asthma. As far as painkillers are concerned, soluble paracetamol was all I could take, even when I had severe arthritic pain before a recent hip operation."
Unlike most people with asthma, Breda is a poor candidate for the flu and pneumonia vaccinations and she is sensitive to a number of environmental factors such as carpet glue, air conditioning and bad ventilation.
Cigarette smoke is also a dangerous trigger for her. Her husband Brendan says she's like a "human smoke alarm". She recalls being in an open stand at a hurling match when someone lit up. "I started choking really badly, so I had to go to the first-aid people for help. It was really frightening," she says. "During an asthma attack, you feel as if you are breathing through a soggy straw instead of a nice, clear pipe. The space that the air travels through is almost closed."
Breda says she has had a lot of sleepless nights due to the constant coughing and wheezing. When that happens, she uses an inhaler and drinks camomile tea to relax her. She tries to keep her surroundings trigger-free. She has a wooden floor in her bedroom and keeps the house well ventilated. And she uses a good vacuum cleaner to maintain a dust-free environment.
Last year, Breda's situation changed dramatically when she began a new treatment. "I go to the hospital once a month to have a special injection for severe, allergic asthma. It's part of a three-year programme. Since I began, I've seen a huge improvement. I've had far fewer exacerbations. In fact, I've gone through the whole of this past winter completely free of infection," she says.
Nonetheless, Breda takes full responsibility for her health. "I keep my immune system as strong as possible," she says. "I get plenty of exercise to keep my lungs strong; swimming is excellent for people with asthma. I take my meds and pay attention to my breathing and take action when my peak flow is dropping."
In 2006, Breda took early retirement from teaching. She then became even more active as a volunteer in the ASI. "I got involved in a programme called Reach your Peak with Asthma. We made a DVD for teachers and coaches, which featured John O'Shea and Ronan O'Gara. We wanted to show how children could be high achievers in sport even though they have asthma," she says. "I'd meet parents at school who'd say their child can't run because he or she has asthma. And I'd say, 'they can, if it's managed correctly and they warm up properly before exercising'."
Currently, Breda represents Irish interests on the European Federation of Asthma and Allergy Association (EFA). This feisty, bright and very busy former teacher is quite determined to go on spreading the gospel that anything is possible, even if you have asthma.
The Asthma Society of Ireland's national Asthma Adviceline is open 10am-1pm, Monday-Friday, tel: (1850) 445-464, or see asthma.ie