Olive could be rushed to hospital at any time, because of her brittle asthma condition. But rather than sit on the sidelines waiting, she is busy being a nurse, a public speaker, a patient engagement lead, development coach for her national lacrosse team and a serial blogger.
The September winds rustle the leaves above our heads and the trees sway to the beat of the city all around us. We sit in a gated park surrounded by five storey buildings and have found a little bit of breathing space in this busy city, which seems a rather appropriate meeting place to speak about asthma as we meet with Olive Fulton.
From the age of two Olive was diagnosed with asthma and relied on inhalers to control her symptoms. Asthma didn’t affect much of her early life. She was sports mad, playing lacrosse at a high level and later going on to complete a degree in sports science. During a gap year ski season while she was working out in Fernie, Canada, Olive got pneumonia. She was in intensive care and had to be flown from the local hospital over the Rockies to Calgary where a specialist team managed to get hold of her condition. She said, “That £60 I spent on insurance was the best £60 I ever spent, I later found out my medical bills topped £250,000.”
When she returned home she was told she had brittle asthma (uncontrolled asthma). This massively affected her life from that moment on. She was determined not to let the condition dictate her life and continued with her sport and her degree. The three year degree ended up taking four years because of a number of asthma attacks that left her in hospital for weeks at a time. She vividly recalls looking down to the end of her bed while her consultant quietly said to her, “You’re going to have to give up sport before it kills you.”
Giving up though wasn’t something in Olive’s mind-set. She refused to fully stop her sports career and activities but accepted that some changes had to be made. The first was a career change. She trained and qualified as a nurse and got a job working on a renal ward. The second big change was in lacrosse. She moved from all action outfield player to a goalkeeper. She recalls, “I was in goal at a development day and a scout approached me to attend a trial for the national lacrosse team. After the trial I made it into the team. I guess I have to thank my asthma for helping me represent my country in a sport I love.” Olive continues to work for her sport as development director, working at the grass roots level, building the popularity of the sport across the whole country. She is also assistant manager for the national team.
Olive’s condition meant that her job on the renal ward was too tough to maintain, so she moved off the ward and became a community nurse. “My work in the community is about supporting patients to live the life they want to by making sure they are well enough to do it.” Around the same time she was invited to AUKCAR (Asthma UK Centre for Applied Research). The centre was interested in finding out how Olive copes as a patient and the issues she faces. This chance meeting has led to her spending more and more time doing patient and public involvement with the centre to aid asthma research working with the Ph.D. students, lecturing on the rises and pitfalls of asthma and speaking nationally at lots of conferences.
We leave the park and stroll up a pedestrian area, dodging the bikes and the hoards of students. Olive talks about her blog as we head up to AUKCAR, saying, “I can’t remember when I started writing but I feel I can write better than I can speak about my feelings.” She went on to say, “I’ve had lots of feedback from people who’ve said the blog has shown them that this type of asthma isn’t the end of the world. That you can still achieve and plan to do lots of things you want to do. If people get something from stuff I write then I’ll keep writing.” Her blog has been read by thousands and helped a wide range of people from fellow sufferers to doctors and clinicians, all trying to better or fully understand how asthma can affect daily life and ways to improve.
After a short walk we arrive at the University where some AUKCAR researchers are based and Olive shows us around. This is where she is currently helping with children’s research groups. She has helped set up a centre in Edinburgh and London and is aiming to help establish groups in other cities. At the group they are prototyping new decals for inhalers for children, sharing experiences and creating a patient support group. “I act as a middle man. There are lots of academics trying to understand asthma and how it affects patients. I have experience from both sides so can help to make sure the right questions are asked.”
One of Olive’s latest posts leads her to talk about her ever increasing use of drugs. She mentioned how she was picking up two carrier bags full of drugs for the week. She has drugs to control her asthma, drugs to control the drugs and drugs to suppress side effects. She said, “Do I wish I didn’t have asthma and didn’t have to take drugs? Yes, but there are things I would never have done if I hadn’t had asthma. Last year I got an article published in the British Medical Journal, I’ve played lacrosse for my country and spoken at lots of lectures, I can’t actually number or name the amount of great experiences and amazing people I’ve met.”
Clearly Olive would prefer a life without the bags full of drugs, but the burden asthma has put on her life has forced her to think differently, to act differently and face life head on. Where other people could have easily disappeared within themselves and hidden from the world, Olive has fully embraced life. One week she could be giving a talk in London, the next coaching lacrosse, working in the community or writing her blog. She is a focused, driven individual who has continued to do what she does despite her brittle asthma and by doing so has helped so many people. She said, “Doing little bits and pieces rather than massive things keeps my life achievable and really interesting. If I didn’t do the things I do then my asthma would have won. Simple as that.”