Asthma death: Bereaved father warns about complacency

A father from County Down whose daughter died from an asthma attack has said people have become too complacent about the condition

This is an edited version of an article first published on the BBC News website.

Rachel Williamson was 16 years old when she died after suffering an attack at home in Portavogie in 2017.

Her father, Simon, has launched an asthma awareness initiative for teenagers, believed to be the first of its kind in the UK and Ireland.

About one in 10 people in NI have asthma, including 36,000 children.

Many asthma deaths can be prevented through correct use of inhalers and regular check-ups.

But in 2017, the last year for which figures are available, 38 people in Northern Ireland died from it.

Rachel was one of them. She had lived with the condition for most of her life. But late one July evening, she became unwell.

Her father was working a late shift. “I called to her down the hall and said: ‘Right Rachel, I’m away into work.’ And she said: ‘Ok dad, see you in the morning.'”

Williamson received a phone call at about 01:30 BST advising him to come home as Rachel was unwell.

“When I came home, I was met by the police and other emergency services. When I drove in, the ambulance drove out and I knew things weren’t good,” he said.

“During the evening Rachel told her mum she wasn’t feeling well and within 40 minutes she had collapsed. Rachel passed away, I believe, in the ambulance. One moment she was fine, within an hour, she was gone.

“Asthma doesn’t discriminate against anybody and if not treated quickly, it’ll take your life very, very quickly and that’s what happened to Rachel.”

Williamson has now launched a pilot programme to educate teenagers about the dangers of asthma. He is visiting schools to speak about his family’s loss and about a condition which he admits he did not realise could be fatal.

He said: “We were very complacent as well about asthma, we were never given any indication that asthma could kill.”

The program aims to educate teenagers with asthma about best practice, but also to raise awareness amongst their friends and teachers about what to do if someone has an asthma attack.

It was launched at Rachel’s old school, Glastry College in Ballyhalbert, where principal Alan Hutchinson said the issue needs to be taken more seriously.

“Most people’s perception of asthma is you have asthma, you have a wee bit of breathing difficulty, you take a puff and you’re fine,” said Hutchinson.

“This [the program] changed that entirely. It gets across to some young people that you can go through months with no issues, but it doesn’t mean you’re better and that you’re literally several breaths away from it all going tragically wrong.”

Sporting organisations like the IFA have also expressed interest in the initiative.

Professor Mike Shields, a consultant pediatrician with 30 years of experience treating children with asthma, said there are some common mistakes which people make.

He added: “People with asthma, particularly if its mild or just moderate, think they can just use their reliever medicine.

“Typically, they put their preventer medicine in the drawer just in case they have a bad attack, but it doesn’t work for bad attacks – it needs to be used every day.”

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