Hello, my name is Julia and I am an asthmatic, I say that with a smile on my face because I don’t like to let my illness define me however this is my story about living with asthma. I am a 46 year old professional working as a HR & Operations Manager during the week, and on weekends I fulfill one of my dreams and crew for a hot air balloon company in the Yarra Valley, in Melbourne, Australia. Most people take breathing for granted but for an asthmatic it’s a very special gift. I manage my asthma through a range of drugs and am steroid dependent. I have participated in six drug trials over the past 20 years to which most I have had an allergic reaction to of sorts.
As an infant I struggled with numerous allergies, I suffered from severe eczema as a child, hay fever and have allergies to various antibiotics, drugs, animals and the usual pollens, dust mites etc….. I was first diagnosed until the age of 10 with mild intrinsic asthma which was induced by strenuous exercise or from being unwell usually with bronchitis or a respiratory infection of sorts. Things changed for me at the age of 25 years when after an extreme exacerbation of asthma my diagnosis changed to chronic brittle asthma and I was diagnosed with extrinsic asthma. My asthma triggers became broader and my exacerbations more severe, and treating my asthma became exceptionally difficult. I now struggle with asthma every day of my life, and there have been many times where I really didn’t think I would be here today to share with you my story.
At the age of only 29, I recall sitting in the oncology department undergoing my first Xolair trial. I suddenly became breathless and was rushed to the resuscitation unit in emergency gasping for air. Whilst there I was issued with a disabled sticker I was mortified, in my early thirties with my whole life ahead of me yet I felt like my life was on a spiral downward slope, and to this day I have never felt as old and or as depressed as I was on that day. It was that moment that I made a promise to myself that asthma wouldn’t define me as a person or rule my life! This was the turning point for me and my quest to fight this debilitating disease.
For many years my asthma controlled my life, the daily struggle was too much, and I gave up. Prior to developing severe asthma, I was active, I played netball and for 25 years I loved and competed in calisthenics but as my weight ballooned from the increasing steroid use I became embarrassed to squeeze myself into a leotard, lycra isn’t anyone’s friend when you are overweight! I stopped exercising due to breathlessness and so the vicious circle started. 25 kilos later I became a couch potato, unhealthy, unhappy and depressed. About 18 months ago I saw a photo of myself in bathers, horrific is an understatement. Rather than bury my head I blew up that photo, and stuck it on my fridge, I then posted it on social media and pledged public ally that I was going to change. But as my weight dropped and my fitness improved I found that my general health and wellbeing increased astronomically which in turn helped me cope with my asthma better. In conjunction with my drugs and new lifestyle my asthma is currently well-controlled, currently I am 25 kilos lighter and living an active lifestyle. Not only have I changed my diet but now incorporate exercise into my daily routine and my fitbit has become my best friend and together with my Ventolin I never leave home without it! While the Boston marathon has been crossed out, I am proud to say I walk an average of 4-5klm daily and have participated in numerous charity walks up to 10klms. Don’t get me wrong ask me to run 50 meters and I will have an asthma attack, it’s all about knowing your limitations and mine is walking with my trusty blue inhaler as my pal definitely not running.
As I mentioned in my opening paragraph I now crew for a hot air balloon company on weekends.. I’ve had a fascination with balloons all my life. Oh the irony of my hobby is essentially a bag full of hot air trapped…………………………………………………………………….. just like an asthmatic trying to breathe.
Since my first balloon flight on my 21st Birthday I have dreamed of working with balloons. There is nothing more majestic than experiencing a kaleidoscope of colour on the horizon watching the sunrise from a hot air balloon. Personally, I can’t think of a more invigorating way to begin my day. With my new found lease on an fit and active lifestyle I decided to embark on a new adventure and follow my dream to become a balloonist.
If you have ever been in a hot air balloon you will appreciate the peaceful floating experience that is associated with ballooning. So, you will understand my personal intrigue when I heard of a Hot Air Balloon Competition. Unlike many sports a hot air balloon competition is not about speed but more about the methodological skill of the pilot and in some instances just sheer luck. This intrigue together with my passion of hot air balloons lead me to join a group of young pilots and crew from Global Ballooning Australia known as The Flying Lemmings, to venture to a small country town of NSW for the Canowindra International Balloon Challenge.
While my family and friends thought I was mad I discussed my plans with my medical team and set about making a specific asthma action plan to prepare me and my teammates for my trip. I embarked on a 9-day camping trip to crew for the Canowindra International Balloon Competition. Not only was this totally out of my comfort zone but a year or so ago I wouldn’t have been able to even consider attempting it. It was exhausting physically and emotionally challenging work, additionally I was amongst numerous severe asthma triggers that in the past would have put me in hospital and serious danger if not worse.
I survived 8 nights camping in the cold night air (it dropped to 5 degrees), dust, horses, dogs, grass, livestock, LPG gas just to name some of my allergies and asthma triggers. And while I finished the week a little sore and bruised I can honestly say my asthma was extraordinarily well controlled during my adventure. I can now proudly say I am an official balloonist and I even have the t.shirt to prove it!
If you had suggested that I would I ever be involved, let alone crew, for an International balloon challenge I would have said you had rocks in your head. This adventure is honestly one of the most exhilarating and rewarding journeys I have undertaken since my mid 20’s.
I am testament that you can live a fit and active life with chronic severe asthma. It isn’t going to happen overnight, and it takes heaps of discipline, and a great support network. For me I have a team that I credit for my new lifestyle, my amazing husband, my wonderful team of specialist and nurses at The Alfred Hospital, the awesome team at Asthma Australia, the scientists and drug companies for their ongoing commitment to research and development of medications and my weight loss consultants whom have all supported me through my ongoing adventures. I can never express my gratitude and thanks to them as its because of these amazing humans that I was able to say yes and fulfill a lifelong dream adventure.
I have sacrificed many things in my life due to my disease including not having children and missing my honeymoon, and therefore I am determined to make the most of my life where and when opportunities present. Despite my illness I have a very positive attitude and live a very full and active life with my husband within my limitations, (although I have been known to test these from time to time). I am looking forward to a brighter future as I have an ever-growing bucket list of new adventures to undergo.