Laura Rentoul is 39 years old and lives in Broughty Ferry near Dundee with her husband and 3 young children. She was diagnosed with asthma when she was 11 years old, but it has got worse in adulthood. Laura’s middle child who is 5 also has asthma. Laura enjoys most sports, but especially tennis, hockey and running. She also loves travelling and spending time with her family.
Laura has been ventilated due to her asthma five times. Here, she shares her experiences of ventilation and explains the effect that it had on her family.
What led to you receiving ventilation?
I have been ventilated in the past due to severe asthma exacerbations. They have usually been caused by an infection, although there have also been other triggers; one being chlorine in a swimming pool. The doctors took the decision to ventilate me as my blood gas results were not improving and I was becoming so exhausted it was becoming harder and harder to even take a breath.
How long were you on ventilation for?
I have been ventilated on five different occasions, and each one the length of time I was ventilated for was different. The first few times I came off the ventilator with no problems. The last time I was ventilated it was slightly harder to get me off the ventilator. From what I understand, it is not uncommon for it to be harder the more times an individual has been ventilated.
How did it feel to be on ventilation?
I was unaware that I was on ventilation for the majority of the time. Whenever the decision has been made to put me on a ventilator, I have always felt so ill and not been fully aware of what was going on even though the doctors fully explained what was happening. They said that they were sending me into a sleep and were going to take over breathing for me to give me a rest. They have always made it sound like it was nothing to worry about and I have always fully trusted their decision.
Once I was scared, but I would like to reassure people that it is very rare for this to happen. I had been given the drug that paralyses you and the breathing tube had been put in place, but the sedation hadn't fully taken effect. This meant that I could feel the breathing tube and my instinct was to try and take it out, but I could not move as I was paralyzed. The medical team quickly realised what was happening and increased the sedation and I can't remember anything after that. When you are being weaned off the sedation you are aware of things going on around you and again you can feel the tube and want to pull it out. There has always been a nurse there to reassure me and explain what is going on but at this time you do feel a sense of vulnerability. You are not able to communicate properly, and this can be extremely stressful. I also found that the lack of control along with certain medications that I have been given can increase anxiety and agitation. The Intensive care unit (ICU) can be quite a noisy environment and there are lots of machines beeping which can increase stress levels.
What impact has it had on your life and health?
I try not to dwell on it and I have been lucky as I have amazingly supportive family and friends and a fantastic consultant and health care team. Severe asthma is a condition that I live with every day and I can't escape that, but I try not to look at the challenges that I face and instead look at the things I can do.
Immediately after coming out of the ICU, I did have times that I was scared of things getting worse again and that is a reality that I may face anytime I have an exacerbation. Everyone deals with situations differently and I know that some people who have been ventilated have suffered from longer physiological effects. Some intensive care units have support groups to help patients come to terms with what has happened to them and talk through questions they may have. It also gives people a chance to talk to others that have been in similar situations as themselves. I am aware that there is a growing emphasis on post intensive care support.
What helped you to recover after receiving ventilation?
My family and friends were a massive help. As I mentioned before, I also have a great consultant and my GP was also very understanding. I always felt that I had a source of support. I think that having a clear understanding of what has happened helps and so if you have questions, no matter what they are, it is important to ask them. Sometimes reflecting on what has happened can raise questions that you can then ask your clinicians. Another thing that helped was trying to get active as soon as I could. While you are ventilated and in the intensive care setting your muscles waste quickly even though you are given physiotherapy. So, whilst the recovery process can take a long time, I found that trying to do small tasks and take small steps helped both physically and mentally.
What was it like for your loved ones?
The times that I have been in intensive care have been times of great stress and tension for my loved ones. There have been times when they have been told that I was so sick, that the doctors were doing everything they could, but there was a chance that I might not make it. This was obviously incredibly hard to hear but, even though I was ventilated, they tried to be positive at my bedside as there was a chance that I could hear them. They would give me reassurance and offer supportive words and there were times that I could hear them.
They found that, as it is a very emotional time, it helped to have one family member that acted as the communication person between the doctors and family. It meant that there were no crossed wires and they would get clear information. When patients are in intensive care, they often do not have the capability to make decisions as they are not conscious. My family found that they became my decision makers. Although this was a necessity, it was an added stress in what was already a stressful time full of shock and confusion. Again, it helped having one main point of contact within the family; this meant decisions were talked through and it was a whole family decision, but there was one spokesperson. My family have always felt amazingly well supported by the medical and nursing teams in the intensive care setting and this has helped them a lot. They are extremely grateful for that.