Sunday, September 23, 2012

Learning to breathe easily

I was a designer asthmatic. I had all the latest gear - a chic rainbow of inhalers, an elegant line in nebulisers and a small, but classic army of tablets. And with a friendly GP who wrote free-flowing prescriptions with such gusto I'd swear he was training to become a parking attendant, I had all my asthma needs covered.

It may have been costing me a fortune, but I had a business to run. I simply didn't have time for asthma.

A business pitch? Have a couple of puffs before I go in. A speech? Two tablets, right as rain. Sex? A few more puffs before swinging from the chandeliers.

At my peak, I was taking 24 puffs of inhaler a day, six times the recommended dosage.

But then, recommended doses were for muppets.

Of course, there were side effects - tremors, palpitations, headaches and dizziness - but these same symptoms manifested themselves every time my wife suggested late-night shopping.

I had been taking medication for my asthma for 26 years and I had no plans to stop.

That's when I came across the article in The Irish Times Health Supplement on the Buteyko Breathing clinics run by Asthma Care Ireland. I was sceptical, but I called the number.

"Three Saturday mornings from 9 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. and you'll be a different man," the lady at the end of the phone enthused.

And so, instead of recovering from the burning excesses of the week with my regular game of golf, I stood peering at a small sign that simply said: 'Asthma Care Ireland - Quiet Please!'

I took a couple of puffs of inhaler and went in.

There were 10 of us in total - three men, five women and two children. "Any teachers here?" Patrick, our course leader, inquired as we filled in a lengthy set of forms. Four hands shot up. Patrick looked pleased.

"Teachers are prime candidates for asthma," Patrick revealed.

"In fact, any profession where you stand on your feet for hours on end is a breeding ground for asthmatics."

A woman cradled her six-year-old daughter in her arms. Becky (21) had every reason to be out of breath - she had travelled down on the early morning train from Dundalk, while Thomas (76), sitting beside me, seemed to be the worst of us.

He leaned forward, hand raised, the stranglehold of his asthma impeding the speed but not the impact of his contributions.

"I told my... doctor that I was... coming here today.... He said that it would be a [long pause, gasp] ... waste of time."

Undaunted, Patrick announced: "Pollen, dust mites, allergens and stress are NOT the cause of asthma. They are the triggers of an attack when our immune system is not working correctly.

"Asthma levels are the same in the heart of the Scottish Highlands as they are in Central London, so pollution is not the cause. Nor is it pet hairs. When you've finished this course, you'll be able to go home and sleep on top of your baggy old cat.

"Asthma is caused by overbreathing," Patrick continued. "People with asthma breathe a volume of 10 to 20 litres per minute and up to 30 litres during an attack.

"Normal breathing is three to five litres per minute. I'm going to teach you how to breathe less."

Our breathing retraining began. Big mouth breathing, such as sighing, or yawning, was taboo as we learned over the next three hours how to breathe "properly" through our noses.

On the second week, Patrick tackled the thorny issue of overbreathing during our sleep.

After all, he argued, eight hours of overbreathing in bed would undo much of the progress achieved during the day.

"It may sound strange, but the best method I have found is to use one-inch surgical tape available from the chemist and place it over your mouth during sleeping. Don't worry about your nose blocking up during sleep," Patrick continued, as we eyed each other nervously.

"If it becomes partially blocked, the levels of carbon dioxide in the body will increase, which will unblock it naturally."

We were encouraged not to eat a couple of hours before going to bed, asked to buy some magnesium supplements, as it helps open the airways, and to drink lots of water.

We had a raft of exercises to do. The plan was to wean us off our medication as our breathing levels improved.

My wife howled with laughter as I put on the surgical tape and said she wished it had been recommended earlier in our marriage.

But, the following morning, I woke up having had an excellent night's sleep and my breathing levels throughout the day remained good.

By the final week, everyone was showing signs of improvement: "My doctor has taken me off one of my injections and reduced my medication," said Thomas, without a hint of a gasp. "I'm feeling as good as I've felt in 10 years."

The teachers' report cards also showed fine progress and the young children were also doing well. An unspoken bond had built up between the 10 of us.

We resolved to stay in touch even though Becky said wistfully she would no longer be catching the early train down from Dundalk.

Patrick reminded us that Asthma Care Ireland was available Monday to Friday during office hours to provide 12 months' worth of help and follow-up support as required.

And my report card now long after the course has finished?

I feel significantly better.

I no longer use any inhalers and I have put away the nebuliser and the tablets.

And if I have a big meeting or a conference or my wife is calling from the bedroom, before I begin, I take a very, very shallow breath!