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Dublin: 8 °C Tuesday 19 November, 2019
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The 'devastating' common illness we need to talk about

“My first instinct was ‘Oh my god, I’m going to die.’”

IT WAS DEVASTATING. I had never heard of it. My first instinct was ‘Oh my god, I’m going to die.’ I realised I’m not immortal.

Angela Shakil was diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) in May 2014. She suffered from severe bouts of bronchitis for months beforehand.

COPD is a condition where the airways of the lungs are narrower than normal, leading to airflow obstruction and difficulty breathing. This can result in shortness of breath and tiredness. COPD is a term used to include chronic bronchitis, emphysema or a combination of both conditions.

Angela Shakil Angela Source: COPD Support Ireland

COPD arises principally due to smoking. It is the fourth most common cause of death in Ireland after lung cancer, heart disease and stroke.

Angela, who lives in Bray, says she struggled with depression after her diagnosis.

“The devastation you feel when you first find out, I can’t even being to describe it. Especially when you were fighting fit and very, very active all your life. Then simple things like going up the stairs leave you sitting there wondering ‘What did I do?’ …

The doctor said every cigarette I have after this will make it worse. I told my children that while (smoking) wasn’t affecting my health they had to leave me alone about it. I had to keep up my end of the bargain. I had to keep my word, didn’t I?

So after 40 years of smoking, Anegla turned to e-cigarettes and hasn’t smoked a cigarette since.

She has had about ten “serious” episodes so far this year as a result of her COPD.

You struggle to breathe, any slight effort I find myself wheezing or, worse, coughing – once you start coughing you can’t stop and that leaves you exhausted.

“Go and get it checked before you get COPD, before you can’t turn back the clock.”

Paying the mortgage or getting medication 

Angela is struggling with the financial burden of her illness. She has school-going children and during the summer was forced to stop buying her inhalers so she could afford antibiotics and steroids.

There are times when I have to choose between paying my mortgage and paying for my inhalers, especially if I have to buy antibiotics that week.

Angela has found emotional help through COPD Support Ireland, the national umbrella body for local support groups.

She tries to lead a healthy lifestyle and walks 2-3km every day – usually in the morning, when her energy levels are higher.

380,000 people

Angela is one of more than 380,000 people in Ireland that live with the condition, with COPD Support Ireland warning that this figure is “alarmingly on the rise”.

Research shows that Ireland has one of the highest rates of death from COPD in Europe, with almost 2,000 people dying from the condition in 2014.

Next Wednesday (18 November) is World COPD Day.

Save Your Breath

During the week, COPD Support Ireland launched its annual Save Your Breath campaign and set out five key pledges it is urging political parties to sign up to ahead of the general election:

1. COPD spirometry* screening to be made publicly available to high-risk groups: people who are over 35 years of age and have symptoms of persistent breathlessness, coughing with phlegm and chest infections, people who are current or former smokers or have a family history of lung conditions (*a common test used to assess how well your lungs work by measuring how much air you inhale)

2. Pulmonary rehabilitation exercise programmes to be made available in all acute hospitals;

3. COPD outreach programmes to be offered by all acute hospitals, ensuring patients are treated at home where appropriate;

4. Medical card access to be provided for people with COPD in recognition of the significant health cost burden incurred;

5. National freephone helpline to be established for people with COPD to access information and advice from trained health professionals.

COPD Save Your Breath Campaign Launch 10 Anna Nolan at the Save Your Breath launch. Source: COPD Support Ireland

The awareness campaign, which sees a nationwide COPD health check-in tour offering free screening, was launched by Jerry Buttimer, chair of the Oireachtas health committee, and TV presenter Anna Nolan.

Professor Tim McDonnell, Consultant Respiratory Physician at St Vincent’s University Hospital, is encouraging people to get tested for the condition:

Last year, just over one in five of those tested nationally as part of COPD Support Ireland’s screening tour were referred to their GP for further examination on the basis of abnormal spirometry. Yet more than two-thirds of these had already had symptoms but had not sought medical advice. I would urge people not to ignore warning signs, but to seek medical advice. Early diagnosis of COPD means that you can start to get treated straightaway and potentially avoid some of the more serious effects of the disease.

COPD screening will take place at the following locations in the coming days (from 11am to 2.30pm, unless otherwise indicated):

  • Monday, 16 November – Cork city (Kingsley Hotel), Waterford city (Granville Hotel);
  • Tuesday, 17 November – Ennis (Temple Gate Hotel), Limerick city (Pery’s Hotel);
  • Wednesday, 18 November – Newcastle, Galway (Croí House), Nenagh (Nenagh Pastoral Centre), Sligo (Sligo Regional Hospital – 10am-4pm);
  • Thursday, 19 November – Dublin 1 (Rotunda Hospital – Pillar Room), Drogheda (Westcourt Hotel), Longford town (Longford Arms Hotel – 10am-3pm);
  • Friday, 20 November – Arklow (Arklow Bay Hotel).

People can find details about their local COPD support groups here or get more information on Twitter or Facebook.

You can donate €2 to the Save Your Breath campaign by texting the COPD to 50300 (100% of donations go to COPD Support Ireland across most network operators. Some operators apply VAT, which means that a minimum of €1.63 will go to COPD Support Ireland).

Read: “It takes a long time to accept it, especially when you’ve caused it yourself”

Read: Leo wants to make it easier for patients to complain

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About the author:

Órla Ryan

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