The scariest moment we ever had with my daughter Belle came before she was diagnosed with asthma.
She’d been jumping around at a play centre on a cold morning and I thought she was being a petulant four-year-old. She kept tugging at me while I was trying to pack up and say goodbye to a friend, telling me she wanted to go home. Belle had an annoying little cough — kind of like those fake ones that people use to interrupt you — but as it was winter I didn’t think too much of it.
By the time I got her strapped into the car, just minutes later, I realised she couldn’t talk. She had gone the colour of wax and was fighting for breath. Not quite believing what I saw, I asked her: “Can you breathe?” She shook her head, unable to speak with wide terrified eyes. Fortunately, I was literally a few minutes away from the hospital.
It’s not easy to forget driving your little kid to hospital when you can hear them gasping for breath in the back.
This is the journey no doubt hundreds of people made to the emergency department a fortnight ago at the mercy of the 'asthma cloud' over Melbourne — and with eight deaths now clocked up, some never had the chance to do.
As one of many parents with a kid with asthma, the 'thunderstorm asthma' gave me the total willies. This week, residents of NSW and Victoria are facing the possibility of it happening again.
The thought of people not being able to breathe and dying helplessly in their loved one’s arms on their front lawns is utterly devastating. It’s very easy to flick off asthma as a common playground condition — I’ve seen teachers, carers and parents do it, believe me. But thunderstorm asthma has delivered a sharp, eye-poking reminder of how serious the illness can be: people die of it. According to the World Health Organisation, globally about 250,000 people’s lives are cut short from the chronic lung condition each year – most, apparently, avoidable.
When Belle was in the midst of being diagnosed, a few days after the play centre incident, I was telling a mum friend of mine what had happened (no doubt over a nerve-steadying glass of wine). She piped up that she always kept Ventolin in her first aid kit despite her children not having asthma.
Quite rightly, she said: "You never know, in regards to your own kids and others coming for play dates, when and what they may react to." It was ridiculous that I’d never thought of it myself; so simple and so sensible.
I have since discovered you can buy Ventolin over the counter for not much more than a cup of coffee or milkshake. I know having a Ventolin may not have changed the course of events for many of the people in Melbourne, and it’s even more disturbing as a parent of an asthma child to know many of those severely affected by the thunderstorm were known asthma sufferers and didn’t respond to Ventolin. I can’t imagine the pain of the poor families that have lost their loved ones. But if popping one in your first aid kit could save just one kid from having to do that emergency run, then it could be the best $7 you've ever spent.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 300 million people suffer from Asthma globally – it's the most common chronic disease among kids. According to Asthma Australia, 2.3 million Australians suffer from it. Alongside the WHO global statistics of 250,000 deaths per year from asthma, The National Asthma Council Australia reveals that in 2015, asthma caused the deaths of 421 Australians. Meanwhile, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare attributes 37,700 hospitalisations in 2013-14 to asthma – the most likely people to be hospitalised are kids under 15.
“For the past 40 years, the prevalence of asthma has increased in all countries in parallel with that of allergy. Asthma is still increasing worldwide as communities adopt modern lifestyles and become urbanised," the Worldwide Health Organisation noted in its 2007 Global surveillance, prevention and control of Chronic Respiratory Diseases.
"With a projected increase in the proportion of the world’s population living in urban areas, there is likely to be a marked increase in the number of people with asthma worldwide over the next two decades. It is estimated that there may be an additional 100 million people with asthma by 2025.”
While scientists debate the many reasons and combinations for increasing asthma globally and the high prevalence in Australia – from diet, to increased pollution (fossil fuel abuse, hello), allergens and increased hygiene, many of us are managing asthma in our homes, and both children and adults alike are being diagnosed every day.
I now realise one of the signs of asthma is a cough that's often persistent – not necessarily the hallmark 'wheeze' you’d imagine. An asthma sufferer's airways are inflamed and prone to react and constrict, sometimes suddenly, when exposed to certain ‘triggers’, making it difficult to breathe in or out. I now seem to be getting an idea of what my daughter’s triggers are – exercise, dust, cold weather, colds and flu, and cats. Of course, there is always the fear that there may be other things you don’t know around the corner.
However, even though she’s only five, she’s all over it. To control her asthma she has what they call a ‘preventer’ puffer twice a day and ventolin if it raises its ugly head. We’ve taught her do both of these herself if needs be. On the odd occasion, she’s even reminded me that she needs her preventer if I’ve ever forgotten. I’ve also learnt and taught her that at the first signs of asthma you get ventolin in – quickly.