I was diagnosed with COPD 21 years ago when I was only 41 years old. But from about the age of 35, I knew that there was something wrong.
I worked in construction and in my twenties I could easily carry two bags of cement, but as time went on, even carrying one bag was leaving me breathless. My dad had also had COPD so I had seen the signs before and the diagnosis was not a surprise.
Worked in the building trade involved a lot of dust and in those days we had no idea about wearing dust masks. Sometimes the air would be thick with dust, especially when I was cutting into walls for electrical cabling. I’d come home coughing up concrete. I also smoked.
In the years since my diagnosis, the doctors and the local respiratory nurse have been great, and have looked after me very well.
It hasn’t been easy though. I’ve got a chest infection right now and am on antibiotics and steroids, but I’m still coughing. If it doesn’t clear up, the next step is A&E and going on a drip, but hopefully it won’t come to that.
Last year I had such a bad cough I was coughing up blood and I coughed until I passed out. This happens sometimes. You cough and cough until you have no breath left and then you pass out. But at that point your body relaxes and you get a breath and come round. I have passed out with my head in my dinner. I have fallen and split my tongue and cut my head. I have even learnt not just to sit on the edge of the bed for a bad coughing fit because if I pass out, I just fall forward onto the floor.
I got to the stage last October where I couldn’t even get up the stairs and had to have a lift installed. And in February just past I had part of my lung removed.
That is when I finally gave up smoking. Before that every time I gave up my lungs filled with mucus. When you smoke the hairs in your airways don’t move so aren’t getting mucus out. When you stop smoking, after a few weeks they start to work again and start to move all the mucus up and out. The problem was that mine didn;t start to move and so my lungs filled with mucus and made it very difficult to breathe. So there was a huge temptation to start smoking again just to be able to breathe, which sounds daft. My GP encouraged me to give up slowly, cutting down one cigarette at a time, to try to prevent this. But coming up to the operation, I had to give up completely. However, the operation removed the worst part of my lung so the mucus wasn’t as bad as I was expecting.
I have been going to the Omagh Respiratory Group since its first meeting in around 2008.
Through the group, I have learnt breathing exercises. Before, being breathless would make me panic which made it twice as bad. But learning breathing techniques means I am calmer. I now know how to breathe under pressure – just to sit down, or find somewhere to take a stance that makes breathing easier.
I have also learned how to minimise stress. Stress makes breathing more difficult because it tightens everything up. But I have learnt how to cope better.
The other good thing about the group is being with other people. If you are out with people who don’t have COPD, you try to keep up but it’s frustrating. In my mind I can still do everything but my body is older than my mind because of the COPD. I’m fine when I’m sitting down thinking about what I want to do but when I go to do it, it’s not so easy. But at the group everyone is in the same boat – no one can do anything! We’re a community of crocks! I’m joking but there is comfort in this.
With COPD, your life is restricted but you still have a life. You can still do things like going on holiday, but you have to plan things so you do them in the easiest ways possible. You have to pick and choose what you do.
I’m not giving up yet. COPD definitely limits your abilities but it is not the end of your life.
Find out more about the respiratory services that Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke offer.