“I can still do everything they can – I might just have to take a slightly different route”

After four years, law student Fern Bowkett’s severe asthma is being brought under control by Xolair

Fern Bowkett"I was diagnosed with asthma at 13, while I was at boarding school. I used to play hockey for Wales and travelled all over the world – but by 17, I could be triggered by something as common as cold weather or fog. Back then, hockey was my life, and having to give it up was soul-destroying.

"It kept getting worse throughout my teens until things came to a head when I was away in the USA. I breathed in some smoke from a fire on the street and collapsed – that’s when I was intubated for the first time (had a tube put down my windpipe so a ventilator could help me breathe). Later that year a consultant diagnosed me with severe asthma."

Xolair has made a huge difference

"I take a combination of medicines to control my severe asthma, including theophylline tablets. In the six months since I’ve been on Xolair, my daytime coughing and wheezing have almost disappeared. I used to be admitted to hospital every week, but now it’s more like once every two months, and just for observation.

"My triggers include cats, dogs, horses, ibuprofen and aspirin, cold weather, pollen, gluten and wheat. But now I can be in a house with dogs and just have a blocked nose rather than a huge reaction. The effects of Xolair took a few weeks to kick in, and I’m hoping that in a few months more my symptoms will disappear completely.

"Now my asthma is better controlled, I’m playing hockey again for my local side (and the Midlands men’s team). I’m gradually building up my strength. It’s so important for me to know my limits - it took me years to be able to spot when I’m getting worse, and what to do. I monitor my symptoms very carefully – my usual peak flow is around 450 but it can drop suddenly to around 100, so I know that at soon as I see it change, I need to get help."

Severe asthma and student life

"I used to go to lectures (or out clubbing) when I really wasn’t well enough, because I wanted to be like all my friends. But forcing myself to go to one lecture can mean I’m stuck at home for the next week. Still, it’s hard not to feel like a fraud sometimes. The way I think of it is that I have to treat my asthma with respect. I can still do everything my friends can – I might just have to take a slightly different route.

"My university has been very supportive – my lecturers have agreed to meet me outside lectures, and extend my deadlines when I’ve been ill. Once I missed an exam because I was in hospital and I was allowed to submit it as coursework instead."

People don’t understand

"I wish there was more support for people with severe asthma, and their families. When my brother was 14, he had to see me being resuscitated in the back of an ambulance – he needed support too, and the networks and support groups just don’t exist in the way that they do for other conditions like cancer.

"And although people might not realise it, asthma can kill, or take over your entire life. I needed more information too – if I’d understood more about what asthma is and how to manage it, I could have avoided a lot more triggers and a few asthma attacks."

Managing side effects of my medicines

"I do get a few side effects from my asthma medicines – mostly from theophylline tablets, which can make me feel sick or vomit, and I’ve had a couple of seizures too. Because the levels in my blood can vary so much, they’re monitored at my GP once a week.

"The weight gain from steroid tablets is a big issue for me too – because I’m constantly on and off them, my weight is always changing. I have two different sets of clothes so I can make sure that something will fit. But I do a lot of sport, which helps to stop me gaining too much weight."

Dealing with doubt and anxiety

"Even when I’m having really bad symptoms, I sometimes feel like I don’t deserve an ambulance, and start questioning my own judgement. I don’t want to be a burden or inconvenience to others – I don’t want my grandma to see me struggling to breathe, so my instinct is to go into the garden rather than call an ambulance. But I know that’s really dangerous, so I override my instinct and make sure I get help. Three people die from asthma each day, and I don’t want to be a statistic.

"I get all my emotions out by writing – I wrote a story about my experience the last time I was intubated and the response has been overwhelming. I never want other people to experience what I do, so I’m training to become a barrister. Once I’m qualified I want to help more people with asthma to get the treatment they deserve more quickly."