Breathing gives you no choice

Michele Goldman, CEO, Asthma Australia

It was just over a month ago that the last mega blaze from an ‘unprecedented bushfire season’ was extinguished, and with it, the long period of intense and hazardous smoke we had to endure. Air quality resumed to normal. People with asthma were able to breathe safely and go outside after prolonged periods ‘staying inside with windows and doors closed’, as they had been advised to do. The risks and fears were all too real, with a new assessment finding a substantial health impact tallying 417 excess deaths, and more than 1300 emergency hospital visits for asthma alone1. One of these lives was 19-year-old Courtney Partridge-McLennan, whose life abruptly ended due to ‘bushfire asthma’ leaving behind her five siblings and her parents Tammy and Chris, shocked and heartbroken.

Much like the Coronavirus, the people with the biggest health impacts from bushfire smoke tend to be the elderly and those with chronic illnesses like asthma and cardiac disease. This week, we’re entering uncharted territory all over again. For people with asthma, they are genuinely facing crisis exhaustion. Some are heading back ‘into hibernation’ as one lady puts it, for the second time in six months.

Asthma Australia is receiving a lot of messages and calls. On the weekend, we received a message from a woman on the South Coast of NSW. After numerous doctors’ appointments and new medications, her asthma is still playing up from bushfire smoke exposure. She works at a school and is asking us, what do I do now that Coronavirus is here? She’s worried. Should she stop working at the school and will her uncontrolled asthma put her life at risk if she gets Coronavirus? This is illustrative of the concerns being voiced by others.

Healthy people can empathise, but they might not understand what it means to have an incurable, chronic condition like asthma. In our ‘new normal’ having asthma throws up a whole new degree of uncertainty – ‘Will this cause me to have an asthma attack? Will I die?’. While we’re all dealing with new sets of problems, like global pandemics and its many implications, people with asthma are trying to stay safe and are taking on extra measures to reduce their risk just in case they suddenly can’t breathe. All these things pile on the information pandemic we find ourselves addicted to, and other problems like needing to stock the fridge or afford extra medication.

In times like these, to everyone who is feeling anxious about being back inside, my message is simple. Don’t go at it alone. Reach out to others. Pick up the phone and call Asthma Australia (1800 ASTHMA) or Lifeline (13 11 14). It could make a big difference in how you cope over the next few weeks or months with your physical and mental health. We are not superheroes. During a Coronavirus lockdown, after the worst bushfire season on record; we all need each other, and community outreach services can help.

If you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t face the prospect of gasping for air each day, please reach out and connect with those that do. In the darkness of uncertainty and despair, we’re letting the asthma community know that we are here, we have your back. Because asthma is serious but with the right support and connections, we can get through difficult times together.

1 https://www.mja.com.au/journal/2020/213/6/unprecedented-smoke-related-health-burden-associated- 2019-20-bushfires-eastern?utm_source=tiles&utm_medium=web&utm_campaign=homepage