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Jean’s battle to breathe - how a short walk to the shops changed her life for ever
EVERY second of every day we take it for granted, but when our ability to carry out the most basic function of breathing fails us, it can mean “scary” suddenly gets cranked up to a whole new level.
Jean Boxley was rendered a prisoner in her home, and to some extent her mind, after she began suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Terrified of experiencing a SOB (shortness of breath) attack, the 66-year-old from Hadleigh was too scared to venture outdoors alone.
The breathing disorder – which means simply taking in air can become exhausting and distressing for those it affects – “crept up” on Jean about four years ago, when she suffered her first attack.
It happened during a perfectly ordinary trip to the supermarket and is an incident that Jean can remember well, though she’d sooner forget.
Jean said: “My husband was doing some decorating, so I thought I’d pop up to Morrisons for some rolls. It was a 10-minute walk from our house and somewhere I’d walked to countless times before.
“I got about half way up the road and I started feeling really puffy. I thought to myself ‘I don’t feel so good’, but I thought, ‘OK, just get across the road and you’ll be OK’.
But Jean wasn’t OK. In fact, she began having a severe SOB and panic attack in the street. She managed to stumble across the road to a bus shelter, where she collapsed and telephoned for her husband.
“It was terrifying. I had to call him to come and get me. At the time, I thought I was going to die, but by the time he got there it had passed.
“It’s the weirdest thing, because when you have an attack like that, you can breathe in, but you can’t breathe out.
“To not be able to breathe is probably the scariest thing you can experience.
“I have always been an active person, I’d be scrubbing the floor, digging the garden and going to aerobics. To admit to myself that this was happening to me was difficult.”
Jean was referred for specialist treatment for her COPD which took care of the medical part of things.
But in her head, she was still battling with the terror of suffering another attack in a public place.
“I didn’t want to go out at all when I was on my own. I lost my confidence and I started to feel very isolated,” she said.
It is thought up to three million people in the UK could be living with COPD, with hundreds of thousands of cases going undiagnosed as the condition is often dismissed as just a “smoker’s cough”.
Like many people with COPD, Jean has been a smoker, though she has all but given up now.
She quit her long-term 10-a-day habit some years ago, but when her beloved dog died the emotional stress saw her re-ignite the habit.
She admitted: “I could kick myself for starting up again, as I’d given up and was doing well. But when my dog died, I was in such a state, as she was a massive part of our family, I began smoking again.”
Things have improved dramatically for Jean after she was offered a place on a new six-week Breathe Well, Live Well course at Southend Hospital.
The course offers cognitive behavioural therapy, covering areas such as acceptance, low mood, anxiety, activity and coping with COPD.
Jean said: “This course has done wonders for me and I’d recommend anyone in the same position to go on it.
“One of the main things it has done is teach me to accept I have COPD. I didn’t want to do that before. I wanted to just carry on as normal.
“Having this condition doesn’t mean I can’t do things I enjoy, like tending our garden, I just have to pace myself. That’s another thing the course teaches you – just because you might feel really good one day, doesn’t mean you should go mad and overdo it.”
Clinical psychologist Dr Hannah Osborne, who runs the course at Southend Hospital, said: “Doctors look after the medical side of COPD condition, but until now there has never been any help with the emotional side. Yet the two go hand in hand.
“Research shows that people with COPD often have depression and anxiety, which frequently goes untreated and unrecognised.
“COPD can affect their whole lifestyle. The natural response to fighting for breath is panic, which triggers adrenalin and in turn can make the patient more breathless.
“That can be very scary and disabling and often makes patients feel their COPD is worsening – when, in fact, they are panic symptoms.
“When patients are unable to be as active and involved as they once were, they can lose a lot of self-esteem and confidence, and their role in the family can change. As a result, COPD can be very difficult to adjust to and can lead to increasing feelings of frustration.
“A lot of the support we offer is designed to help patients manage the condition and have the motivation and confidence to do so. They need to know COPD is not a life sentence.”
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