(Big Tobacco’s Little People is an in-edit excerpt of a Big Tobacco feature running in Uprizine, a new politics, arts and style magazine launching autumn 2015. Uprizine founders and contributing editors are Charlotte Pickering & Jed Birch.)
Claire, who has never smoked, recently spoke to Uprizine’s Charlotte Pickering, days after coming out from Broadgreen Hospital, Liverpool, where she had been treated for pneumonia, pleurisy, pneumothorax (collapsed lung) and DIOS – distal intestinal obstructive syndrome:
Before I was 16, my breathing was OK. I was only in hospital twice with stomach problems related to the Cystic Fibrosis (CF). I was pretty active in school, taking part in sports – cross country races, even! I was in the primary school rounders team!
Around 16 years, I noticed that I would get out of breath when I was walking with my mates. Extra antibiotics were needed for infections – colds, flu. Around the age of sixteen my peers were experimenting with cigarettes, some of them still smoke. It never appealed it me at all, though.
MY LUNG PROBLEMS MEAN I CAN NEVER HAVE A CHILD
Since leaving school, my lungs have deteriorated, and lately, I can’t seem to get out of the Amanda Ward [the CF specialist unit in Broadgreen, Liverpool]. My breathing problems affect my whole life. For instance, I have been married for eleven years. I grew up knowing that having a baby was a no-no. But, medical advances in recent years meant having a baby was possible for CF women, provided you have lung function of over 60%. Lung function can drop significantly when you are pregnant, and although you can regain it after the birth, sometimes you don’t. My lung function has not been out of the 40%s for many years.
It didn’t bother me at first, but when my friend had a baby, it was very hard. There is a special bond between mother and child. I have talked myself around, but it is a heartache. Had it not been my lung disease, we would definitely have had children.
Since I turned 34, I don’t seem to be able to fight off the normal coughs and colds. They always impact my chest. This usually ends up with me being admitted to Broadgreen – Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital with a specialised CF centre. So far this year I have only had four weeks out of hospital. I won’t be beaten by it though. For instance, I’ve got myself a personal trainer, but I haven’t yet seen the impact in my lung function that I was hoping for. Now I need oxygen overnight and when exercising with a personal trainer. I hope this will be temporary, and that I won’t need a lung transplant.
I agreed to talk to Uprizine because I thought it might help smokers by talking about the reality of chronic lung disease. I understand that smoking is an addiction. I have seen my mum trying to give up for years, and she has not managed yet. I hated my parents’ heavy smoking – I was embarrassed by it. All my clothes used to stink. My parents are now out in Spain, and my mum says she is going to stop. My Dad stopped recently after a stroke.
I want you to appreciate what it means to be born with a healthy pair of lungs. Unlike me, you can achieve things that I couldn’t – families, sports, choice – even if you smoke. But healthy lungs – there is no substitute. And I’m someone who may one day have to have a transplant!
Asked what she would give for a healthy pair of lungs, Claire pondered for a while, then said:
Everything I’ve got.
She thought some more, pathos tracing her forever-young face, and repeated, very precisely:
Everything I’ve got.
TRAGIC POST SCRIPT
Unfortunately, Claire’s symptoms did return and within two weeks of the interview, she wrote to me from
Broadgreen Hospital, where she had returned because of severe breathing problems. With profound sorrow, Claire informed Uprizine that she had just learned her mum, Sarah (67) has been diagnosed with lung, breast and brain cancer. The grim irony of the diagnosis, coming shortly after the interview for the Uprizine article about smoking, was not lost on either of us.
I can’t believe it, but on the other hand I’m not surprised. Over the years both my mum and dad tried innumerable times to quit smoking, but nothing lasted. Then about 18 years ago my dad suffered a mini stroke and this scared him enough to quit, which he did over night. We hoped that this would spur mum on to quit but, although she kept trying and talking about it, she could never stay stopped. When they retired to Spain a couple of years ago, mum always said she would stop smoking for good. But now it’s too late.
Selling up in the UK to buy a retirement home in Spain, during the property boom, has meant that Claire’s parents have now lost the little money they had with the collapse of the Spanish economy. Terminally ill Sarah cannot get insurance to fly home, and spend whatever time she has left with her family. Indeed, Sarah’s only chance of coming home is through the GoFundMe appeal Claire and her siblings have launched to collect £6k for a special ambulance to drive her back to the UK.
Meanwhile, Claire is too ill leave her Liverpool hospital ward, let alone fly out to her dying mother. Mother and daughter, both on the edge of life because of chronic lung disease, remain separated at this most desperate time by a few thousand pounds. The only hope now remaining is that the Bring Sarah Home campaign will reach target.
To donate, visit the Help us bring mum home