After a terrifying experience, Belfast mum Hadil Ibrihim says an inhaler isn’t a quick fix for child asthma and stresses the importance of identifying triggers
It’s every parent’s nightmare: watching your young child struggling, severely ill, surrounded by hospital medial staff.
That was the reality facing south Belfast woman Hadil Ibrihim, who was heavily pregnant at the time. The shock of seeing her then two-year-old son Mohamed suffer a life-threatening asthma attack resulted in her going into labour right there and then.
Thankfully, Mohamed responded positively to treatment and Hadil gave birth to her son Kareem, who is now aged three. Mohamed is now aged five and the married mum-of-three is now speaking out about their experience as part of an asthma awareness campaign by Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Hadil, who used to live in Sudan, believes that most people don’t understand how serious the condition can be for sufferers like Mohamed.
“It has changed all of our lives. Not just Mohamed’s, but mine, his dad’s, his brother’s and sister’s. That exact moment [in the hospital] changed everything and since then I’ve made sure that I’m very, very careful of him. I could never overlook anything that happens to him.”
Mohamed was diagnosed with asthma when he was a toddler, but he had been experiencing breathing and chest problems as a very young baby.
“Mohamed had always had chest problems. I remember the first time we were admitted to hospital, he was four months old and he had bronchiolitis,” explained Hadil.
“Ever since then it was chest problems, chest infections, one after the other.
“He would be in and out of hospital every month or two, spending a couple of nights every time because of his chest.
“He was diagnosed with asthma shortly before he turned two. That was when the big one hit us: he had an asthma attack. He was coughing all night, he couldn’t sleep. It was so bad that the inhalers weren’t helping him at all. It was like he was popping candy.”
The 35-year-old added that, in the lead-up to the serious asthma attack, there were no major signs that it would require hospital intervention.
“I remember that day. He didn’t even look that bad. He had been coughing all night and I’d had given him his inhaler as normal. But nothing was changing. But he looked OK, to be honest,” she said.
“We took him to hospital and his bloods were taken and all of the doctors just rushed to me and I knew something bad was happening.
“Doctors were running everywhere. The doctor was telling me that he would explain everything later, that they had to rush him to ICU [an intensive care unit].”
Test results revealed carbon dioxide in Mohamed’s body was very high and he was subsequently intubated, a procedure that involves medical staff using a laryngoscope to guide an endotracheal tube (ETT) into the mouth or nose, voice box and the trachea. The tube keeps the airway open so air can get to the lungs.
“The worst moment was when the doctor told me to kiss Mohamed goodbye. Mohamed was just lying there and I said to the doctor: ‘What do you mean kiss him goodbye?’ He said: ‘I’ll explain later.’
“And they put him to sleep. Scary isn’t the word. It was really bad. All these different doctors were telling me: ‘Let’s hope he pulls through.’ As a mother, let me say, that is really scary.”
Hadil adds: “My blood pressure went through the roof, my blood sugar went through the roof and I went into labour straight away. I was nine months pregnant but it wasn’t my due date yet.
“I remember giving birth and [thinking]: ‘Get it over with and get to see Mohamed.’ The minute I gave birth and I returned to my bed, I said to the nurse: ‘I’ve got to go.’ And she said: ‘What do you mean you’ve got to go?’ I told her that I had to see my son. The staff were really nice. I told them I needed to see him no matter what.”
Hadil, whose doctor husband, Waleed, was working abroad at the time, ended up travelling back to the children’s hospital at the Royal Victoria to check on Mohamed.
Mohamed was discharged after a hospital stay and as time has passed Hadil has learned to live with his condition, thanks to Mohamed’s doctors and making sure to manage his asthma well day to day.
Hadil explains: “It’s better now that I know how to deal with it. His doctors are great — they’ve given me so much help. When I don’t know or I’m not sure, all I have to do is call them and they get straight back to me.
“The doctors have also made it so much fun for him that he has never been ashamed of his inhalers or his asthma. Even when he’s out with other kids, he isn’t afraid to say ‘I can’t run’ or ‘I need a break’.
“He’s very good at looking after himself. It is down to the doctors, who help make him feel proud, like a champion and a hero, for looking after his asthma.”
Three years later, however, Hadil says the experience has changed family life.
“It’s impacted our lives ever since then,” she insists.
“I would tell parents never ignore any signs at all, no matter how small. It could be something big, but also identify the triggers — that helped Mohamed a lot.
“And inhalers are everywhere: in my handbag, they’re in Mohamed’s bag, the car, the kitchen. The closer they are, the better.”
Preventing Mohamed from suffering another asthma attack is a practical day-to-day essential consideration, explains Hadil.
“I have to keep Mohamed close to me. Anything triggers him. School trips, I have to be there. His brother and sister would be out playing and he needs to take a break. When they were younger they didn’t understand, but now they know and understand. My oldest, my daughter Talia, would come to me and say that Mohamed’s wheezy.
“He has to be in a place that is well ventilated. It’s the little things that you wouldn’t think would be a problem.
“Then there are issues like a home: it’s taken us three years to find the right house to live in.
“No one would ever understand how important it is to be aware of an asthma attack.
“People think you just need an inhaler and that’s it, but there’s a lot of stuff we can’t do as a family.
“I remember Mohamed walking into town and a lot of people were smoking — a little wisp of smoke can make him wheezy.
“Mohamed once went into hospital because we went to my sister’s house. A couple of hours earlier she had cleaned the bathroom with bleach and it triggered an attack.”
Hadil advises other parents or carers to ensure they always carry extra inhalers at all times, making sure you use your preventer inhaler every day and take your reliever inhaler everywhere.
“I would not leave the house without one, even if Mohamed’s not with me, that’s how obsessed I am with having them.
“They really do save his life. He doesn’t mind taking them and knows they make him feel better. He would even remind me in the mornings sometimes: ‘Oh, Mum, my inhaler!’”
Not having one can be the difference between life and death.
Hadil explains: “It literally takes him less than half an hour from when he feels unwell to when he’s really bad.
“I’ve had to put him in the car so many times and rush to hospital due to asthma attacks. The sooner you spot that they’re getting bad and take them to get help, the better.”
Another vital aspect for Hadil is ensuring others are aware of Mohamed’s condition.
“His doctors and I have trained him to always say when he needs his inhalers to any grown-up, me or his teachers.”
Knowing the triggers is another key factor in preventing asthma attacks.
“You’ll never know every single trigger, but you need to be aware and keep your house and environment the best you can for them.
“So many things trigger Mohamed. Everyone around me knows you can’t come near me or the family if you’ve been smoking or smell like smoke. It is a number-one trigger.
“Dust, mould and enclosed spaces are also issues — rooms need to be well ventilated.
“In the winter, the cold triggers him; in the summer, it’s hay fever and grass and all of that.
“It affects family and friends because if we are visiting them, [it’s requested that] there is no wearing perfume and no bleach or air fresheners in the house.”
Hadil stresses the impact the condition has had on them all as a family.
“Our whole life has changed. Not just mine, but my close relatives’ lives around us too. Mohamed is the middle child, so at first it was really hard for my older child. I had to miss birthdays, I had to miss Christmases. I had to miss so much because I was always in hospital with Mohamed.
“There are so many things that we can’t do. To this day, I can’t take them all swimming, because there’s probably a 50% chance of him getting sick the next day.
“We also can’t travel very much. I am originally from Sudan and we used to travel back there every couple of years, but we haven’t been able to due to his illness. We have to make sure, anywhere we go, he won’t be exposed to triggers and get ill.”
Hadil repeats that the number-one recommendation for parents whose children have asthma is to take inhalers everywhere.
“Take your preventer inhaler every day. It is really hard — being in hospital for so many nights and seeing your child sick, it doesn’t get easier.
“But by being prepared — using your inhalers and taking them with you — and learning about [asthma] means you can manage it the best you can for you and your child and prevent them from being seriously ill.”
She adds: “I never knew how deadly it was. Time really does matter when it comes to asthma. Minutes matter when it comes to asthma.”
For further asthma information and support, visit www.nichs.org.uk/asthmacankill