“Severe asthma cost me the job I loved”

Rachael Kent, 35, explains how asthma has affected her working life

Portrait of Rachael Kent “When I left school aged 18, I started full-time work at a residential college for young people with autism and challenging behaviour. I loved it but working life was never easy due to my asthma."

Multiple triggers

“In childhood my condition was well managed with Ventolin. Then, when I was 12, we moved from the North East to South Yorkshire and the symptoms got worse. My consultants thought the change in air quality had triggered it. Soon I needed preventer and reliever inhalers and had regular trips to hospital for oxygen and nebuliser therapy.

"At 16 I had my first admission to the high dependency unit (HDU) at hospital and after that, my consultant recommended I have my own nebuliser at home. By 17, I was using it four times a day.

“I have severe allergic asthma so just about anything can trigger an attack – dust, fur, feathers, fragrance, the cold. Every type of pollen affects me, year round, so I’m on a concoction of nose sprays, fexofenadine and loratidine. I also have my own stash of emergency antibiotics and steroids. I’ll be fine one minute, then something will trigger an attack and within half an hour I’m hooked up to all the tubes in the HDU." 

Work struggles

“But I gave everything to my job. I was the Night Assistant Team Manager and worked 12-hour overnight shifts four days on, four days off. My colleagues were fantastic about helping me out. Often I’d have to ask someone to drive me to hospital or call me an ambulance. But then I’d head back to work to finish my shift. Senior management were less understanding – staff would face disciplinary action for high levels of absence. 

“Seven years ago, a particularly bad episode led to a hospital stay of five months. When I came out, I had to move back in with my parents, because social services said it wasn’t safe for me and my son to live alone any more. My son, now 15, has autism and severe epilepsy. I knew it made sense but it felt so humiliating. I had regular home and hospital visits from my employers, checking I really was as ill as I’d said. Reluctantly, I started talking to my line manager about going part-time, losing my manager status and becoming a support worker. 

“So it was a shock then when, shortly after this in 2011, my employers said they were letting me go. They felt that I’d had too much time off work during my 11 years there, and that my condition had become so severe they couldn’t support me in the role anymore. 

"I was devastated. I was forced to sell the home I’d owned before moving in with my parents, and I became reliant on disability living allowance (now PIP). My parents looked after my son and for a while I had carers twice a day to help me do the most basic things like dressing. I was so depressed I tried to take my own life."

Feeling positive again

“I’ve come a long way since then. I have a wonderful support network around me, from my parents to my sister. I have a close circle of friends who will drop anything to help me, as well as my fantastic healthcare team. I’ve been visiting the same adult ward at the hospital since I was 18 so the staff know me well. I have a special care plan with my GP that means I can access mental health services like counselling, when I need them.

"And rather than go to hospital for every consultation, I go to a clinic called Breathing Space in Rotherham, where I have my own specialist asthma nurse who can prescribe what I need and fast track me to hospital. Everyone is so caring and generous and it makes such a difference. 

“These days I have three Xolair injections, every four weeks. They reduce the allergic reactions and mean my hospital stays are shorter. I have a three year old daughter now. I’m still single and at home with my parents but I’m beginning to feel a little more independent. I’ve just had the best 12 months I’ve had in a long time. My aim now is to try to find a part-time job once my daughter starts school. I realise I’m tricky to employ. I need to use my nebuliser at least three times a day and it’s a loud, annoying machine! 

“I feel it’s important those of us with severe asthma tell it how it is. For us, it’s not just a case of some breathlessness that’s cured by a puff on an inhaler. There’s a lack of knowledge and I’d love to change that. I would hate anyone to think that I choose not to work and I would dearly love to be well enough to be back in the job I loved."

Last updated October 2017