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Navigating the Shared Journey: Asthma and COPD

While I was growing up, severe asthma was my constant companion. When I became a respiratory therapist, I expected to connect with short-of-breath patients, assuming they'd be like me—fellow asthmatics.

However, reality had a different script; most of those in my care had COPD. Despite our differing breathing disorders, I discovered an unexpected ability to relate to my COPD patients.

Shared understanding through distress

Allow me to illustrate with a story, perhaps one I've shared before, but one I believe is worth repeating. This moment occurred early in my RT career, back in the late 1990s.

A STAT call took me to a patient's room, where I found a COPD patient leaning on her bedside table, struggling to find relief. Her distress was evident, a mix of panic and shortness of breath.

A nurse, familiar to me as one of the better ones, was already there. "John is here. If anyone understands what you're going through, it's John," she reassured the patient.

The patient, in short, choppy sentences, responded, "Nobody knows what I am going through. It's not possible."

The nurse persisted, "Oh, but John has really bad asthma. If anybody understands what you are going through, it is John."

A half-smile and brightened eyes were the patient's response. I began setting up a nebulizer breathing treatment with Albuterol as she focused on breathing, the room filled with concentration.

By the end, her body relaxed, her shoulders dropped, and she was breathing noticeably better. The nurse had left by then.

Sharing stories

Taking the nebulizer, I placed it in a bag on the register by the window. "Feeling better," I said rhetorically. She took a deep breath, a smile forming, "Oh, so much better. Thank YOU!"

Curious, she asked, "So, you had severe asthma?" We delved into the shared experience of living with the challenge of being short of breath. Discussing our illnesses created an unexpected connection. The conversation naturally shifted after a few minutes of exchanging stories about navigating life with our respective disorders.

We talked about various topics, from politics to her passion for reading. A book, "American Patriot" by Vince Flynn, caught my eye on her bedside table, prompting me to inquire about its quality.

Asthma and COPD similarities

In reflecting on this encounter with my COPD patient, I couldn't help but appreciate the profound similarities between asthma and COPD. For starters, we both experience shortness of breath. As my patient was severely short of breath, we both (sadly) experienced that too from time to time.

And – again, sadly – we both experience the anxiety that goes with being short of breath – and maybe some permanent anxiety that results from the whole scope of stuff that we chronic lungers have to deal with.

We both contend with a certain degree of airway inflammation. When exposed to triggers—often similar ones like allergens, strong smells, stress, or cigarette smoke—this inflammation can escalate, obstructing our airways and triggering symptoms like chest tightness, wheezing, and, well, shortness of breath.

Adding to our common ground, we both rely on controller inhalers. These are the daily companions that work to open and maintain calmness in our airways. Meant to manage asthma and COPD, they aim to reduce the need for rescue inhalers.

Additionally, some of us opt for nebulizers to deliver this medicine. Personally, I've had both inhalers and nebulizers since 1985. Yep, that's a long time.

Then there's the rescue medicine—the one that swiftly restores our breath. Available in both inhalers and nebulizer solutions, this becomes our favorite companion during moments of urgency.

Common ground in treatment

Regardless of whether we're at home or away, both of us, living with asthma or COPD, are advised to have rescue medicine readily available at all times. It's that breath of relief we can't do without.

Oh, and I almost forgot about steroids-the medicine that sparks a love-hate tango. We adore steroids for their prowess in calming our airways and navigating us through flare-ups.

Yet, the disdain kicks in, thanks to the irksome side effects they bring along. Ah, the intricate dance between relief and its pesky companions.

Our disorders are different. But they are, in so many ways, the same.

It is because of this sameness that we can understand one another.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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