Press "Enter" to skip to content

Don’t take breathing for granted

As I type this on my phone, I’m using a borrowed nebuliser, waiting for the Ventolin to take effect. The steam is fogging up my glasses, making it hard to see what I’m doing. Autocorrect is having a field day: when I make a typo, leaving out the l in “bronchodilator”, it offers “neon Jedi storage” (great name for a band, says somebody on Twitter). I’ve had a nasty bout of bronchitis for the past week and I’m tired of wheezing like a granny who’s smoked 40 Winstons a day for the past 50 years. It’s so boring though to sit for 30 minutes next to a machine that sounds like a small generator inhaling a mix of salbutamol and saline but it must be done.

Most people take breathing for granted. Why shouldn’t they? They’ve been doing it since birth. Not me though. I take breathing seriously. There’s nothing like not being able to breathe to persuade you to appreciate this most simple, most reflex of actions.

When you have asthma, though, the simple act of breathing becomes an act of determined concentration and I’ve had asthma for as long as I can remember. In fact, some of my most vivid childhood memories involve being bundled into the back of my mother’s car and driven to Sandton Clinic, where I’d be put on a drip and shoved inside an oxygen tent for a week or so. I hated the oxygen tent because it made it impossible to see the TV screen, an essential respite from hospital boredom. I remember how the South African Broadcasting Corporation showed Clash of the Titans and how much I loved it.

My life revolved around having asthma. The ever-present possibility that I might not be able to breathe has shaped me in ways so profound that I forget. I didn’t have a normal childhood at all. I was sickly and delicate, and marked as different. You learn very quickly that something as simple as running can trigger an attack, that you will be in pain and you will suffer, so you do anything to avoid it. Funnily enough, though asthma can be deadly — it features in the top 20 causes of death in South Africa in this table (which makes for fascinating reading) from the Medical Research Council — I never worried that I might actually die. Death seemed too abstract, even though, in reality it lurked in the background all the time.

Nonetheless, I learned to hate physical activity in general and PT in particular. Swimming was the worst. My mother kept telling me it was good for asthma but experience taught me otherwise. I hated swimming at school with a passion that surprises me still. Hated the burn of the chlorine in my nose, hated the dry stinging eyes, hated the wet roar of water in my ears and the humiliation of being the worst in the class. Right next to the swimming pool at Bryanston Primary School was a water tower and to this day I cannot hear the thin twittering calls of the swifts which nested there without feeling a cold chill within. The hum of the filter, the gentle slap of water at the concrete edge, the screech of the PE teacher’s whistle: all of these constituted the noise of hell.

I hated swimming so much that I took fairly drastic action to avoid it, routinely taking overdoses of the pills I took for the asthma. Microphyllin, they were called; they contained theophylline. I didn’t want to fake being sick so the heart palpitations and nausea caused by the drug were a perfect solution. I was careful not to do it every single time there was swimming at school or it would have raised suspicions and my mother and my teachers never noticed that Tuesdays had a curiously deleterious effect on my health.

(My mother found out about the overdosing only a few years ago, when I mentioned it in passing. She was appalled, but I pointed out that my bad habit had an unexpected benefit: I never got sucked into the drugs scene because I ingested so much medication in various forms as a child that the allure was lost on me.)

Eventually, the asthma specialist took me off the Microphyllin. He seemed to be happy with my progress — progress, which, like the Tuesday nausea, I faked. Asthma was an admin-intensive illness, requiring the daily filling in of a form recording my lung capacity measured with a contraption called a peak flow meter. It was a precursor to the timesheets I would have to fill in many years later and naturally I never remembered to jot anything down. So just before my visit to the specialist, I would write hundreds of numbers on the yellow sheets of cardboard with which I had been supplied, varying them just enough to look convincing. In hindsight, I don’t know why I bothered, since the specialist never gave them more than a passing glance. But when you’re nine-years-old and conscientious, you take the duping of adults very seriously: if you’re going to do it, you have to do it properly.

Years later, when I encountered theophylline again, it was the active ingredient in a cellulite cream somebody was flogging at the gym. Last year, I discovered a bottle of the stuff at my then-boyfriend’s place; he explained that bodybuilders take theophylline and another asthma drug, salbutamol, for their fat-burning properties. Who knew that Venteze could help you look like Arnie. (If you want to know about a pill, don’t ask the pharmacist. Ask one of the okies who hang out at the gym.)

The specialist told me I would grow out of the asthma eventually. It hasn’t happened. Though I haven’t had a serious attack in years, I live on chronic medication — steroids for inflammation, bronchodilators for emergencies . The moment the weather changes, or I travel, or I go too long without my medication, I get found out. Respiratory infections are especially risky. I’m showing no signs of improvement despite forking out nearly R1000 for treatment which Discovery won’t cover. Last night when I took my parents out for dinner, I had to duck out to the loo at regular intervals in order to cough in private and at one point my mother had to order me a very strong cup of coffee. I thought the caffeine might help — it did.

So, next time you do a bit of breathing, pay attention. Marvel at the unfussiness of its quiet continuity. Don’t take breathing for granted, because it really is a wonderful thing. Trust me.


  • During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.


  1. Anke Anke 25 July 2011

    Thanks for taking up a serious topic so lightly. I inherited asthma from my dad’s family, and remember the panting and having to lie down after a round of playing with my sister, sipping water to reduce the spasms. I feel with you but I loved running around as a child and it was me against my asthma, and swimming did the job for me. I was luckier than you though, it subsided for about 15 years until it returned two years back, and sport still does the job for me, even if its tough. And yes, the next time you see someone panting, he might not be just unfit, he might be having serious problems breathing.

  2. BillyC BillyC 25 July 2011

    Hi Sarah, I hope you get better soon. As one who’s mum had many a rush to Addington Children’s casualty at 4am, I sympathise with your plight.

    As an adult, I suffer from COPD (congestive obstructive lung disease)and had long since resigned myself into becoming a couch potato. I recently joined a ramblers club (of which there are many in KZN) and have managed to build up enough fitness to tackle all but the severest uphill slopes. Added to this, a friendly uncomplicated social life of braais and socials and I have re-invented myself completely.

    For those who wish to start off gently, the amblers provides horizontal walks through the suburbs. Adrenaline junkies tend towards trail running and “hashing”

  3. Sue Sue 25 July 2011

    Great article Sarah, and I wanted to say well done on coping with it. My son has cystic fibrosis – and inevitably asthma complicates that.
    Scary amount of drugs to take too – but in case you need a nebuliser again, there are very nifty devices which deliver the meds in a few minutes.
    Don’t want to do the advertising thing in a public space, but check with one of the major pharmacy groups. HUGE difference to my son – three minutes as opposed to half an hour.
    Stay well and may you never lose your breath !!

  4. Judith Judith 25 July 2011

    The after effects of growing up in a smoking household means I am very susceptible to bronchitis and have to watch that my chest doesn’t close up completely. As a child, I didn’t have asthma, but I was very sick winter after winter. It is absolutely no fun wheezing away.

  5. Ash Ash 25 July 2011

    Swimming definitely got a friend right, she had it very badly as a child but at 12 was told to swim and swim and swim and she did and that cured her and she’s fine now.

    I wonder if the old-fashioned remedy for coughing (putting vicks on the soles of your feet at night, with a sock over them obviously) could help you?

  6. benzo benzo 25 July 2011

    According to the literature on Asthma in reflexology handbooks, the root cause for asthma lies in the adrenal gland(s).
    There are ways to stop an attack almost immediately by massaging the upper back between the shoulder blades, left and right of the spine. You can do this yourself by pushing your back against a door frame and roll from one side to the other.
    Visit a reflexologist for further advice and some other movements to do when an attack is there of to get rid of it altogether.
    Worth a try and a lot cheaper than all the medication.
    Good luck

  7. Sean Redmond Sean Redmond 25 July 2011

    I do not take breathing for granted anymore, have quite smoking for 10 months now. The funny thing is that I am worse off now than I was before. I need to be on a nebuliser and take pills to help breathing, cannot climb up a step ladder without a stop.
    Oh well, it was my fault, I smoked 40 a day for thirty years.

  8. Wineou Wineou 25 July 2011

    My sympathies! But thank you for making a fairly fit old fart grateful that at least he does not have breathing problems.

  9. wickedmike wickedmike 26 July 2011

    Awesome, Sarah. Nice, different treat from Thought Leader. Wouldn’t surprise me if there were an inordinate amount of wheezers amongst us scribblers:)

    My earliest memory is trying to escape Durban’s Addington Hospital. Now, living in a wet climate, has been awful for my health but i decided to trade some of my lifespan for the beauty of Knysna.

    Nevertheless, i have learned that activity is the door to life. Never giving in to it is the key. Walking everyday up a damn big hill makes me breathless but also inspires a biological shout for balance.

    Asthma has given me the gifts of appreciation, observation and cynicism – what more could a blogger want:) Cheers from me and Berotec…

  10. Dave Harris Dave Harris 26 July 2011

    A very candid and insightful glimpse into the life of an asthmatic. Thank you Sarah, it was a wonderful read!
    We take so much for granted in our lives. I hope the National Health Insurance will help foot the bill for the medication and we find a cure soon.
    Best of luck coping with this condition!

  11. Jenny Goodrick Jenny Goodrick 26 July 2011

    I relate to the swimming nightmare- the smell/taste of chlorine and the threat of drowning in the attempt to obey that PE teacher actually induced an asthma attack! I totally relate to your experience. And then the problem of forgetting my inhaler- last week I dashed off to see Harry Potter. Gasping,I scratched in my bag but alas, no inhaler. Staggered to the pharmacy. “Why do you need an inhaler?- how many do you use a month? She eyed me suspiciously. “I forgot my emergency one…please, I need to breathe…” Eventually I was handed a life saver. Two puffs and a little later I was holding my breath in the movie house. Sarah- I understand. Any cats yet? :)

Leave a Reply