My COPD's not smoking-related, so stop assuming it is
20% of people with COPD have never smoked. Dr. Shobha shares her story.
Although I’ve never smoked, I was diagnosed with COPD in 1998 - the same year I was meant to retire from my job as an anaesthetist.
I was so busy, and it came on so gradually that I didn’t even realise. It happened after I’d been to India, where I'd visited the factory where my son-in-law was working. I could tell that being inside the factory wasn’t good for me; perhaps it was the dust affecting my throat.
On my way back to the UK, I started to feel ill on the plane, coughing and shivering. Within 24 hours of landing, I was in hospital.
It was severe pneumonia, and I was kept in for 10 days with a very high fever. After that, my COPD slowly began to show. When I was eventually diagnosed, I saw my X-ray and wondered how on earth I was alive because my right lung seemed to hardly be there. It was that bad.
COPD is so debilitating
Nowadays, I get breathless so easily - even if I just talk for a few minutes.
I can barely walk. That used to mainly be due to my arthritis, but since I had my knees replaced in 1996, I’ve realised how much more debilitating my COPD is. You can’t just take a painkiller and carry on.
Sometimes, I notice my breathing when I talk. It sounds so bad that I can't believe it's me making that noise. It sounds like someone else.
I don't know what's caused my COPD
Since I used to work as a doctor, I'm always asking myself how I managed to develop such severe COPD.
Apart from pneumonia, which I also had as a teenager, part of me thinks it may have been caused by passive smoking. In the 70s, I used to commute on the Paris metro and the London underground, before the smoking ban, and you can imagine what the trains were like!
Another part of me wonders if my work with anaesthetic had anything to do with it.
I used to work in India in the 50s when open anaesthetic was the method, so I would pour anaesthetic on a mask over my patient’s face. When I would come home from work, I would smell so strongly of chemicals that my young children wouldn’t even hug me.
We need to research non-smoking-related COPD more
The moment you say you have COPD, people just assume that you smoked. It always seems to be your fault when you have this disease, and that makes me so angry. 20% of people with COPD have never smoked.
I want more people to come forward to talk about COPD, without talking about smoking.
I’ve been to a number of talks on COPD, but no one really seems to be interested in why non-smokers develop this condition. People should do more research on this subject. It's a real bone of contention for me.
I want more people to come forward to talk about COPD, without talking about smoking-related causes. Why don’t we hear about people exposed to dust, fumes and chemicals at work? This can cause COPD, and so can other harmful substances, like air pollution, if you breathe them in for a long time. We need to know more about this, so we can stop people damaging their lungs.
I still love working
Although I get breathless very easily, I don’t let my COPD stop me from living a really busy life. I love working! It makes me very happy.
I do a lot of voluntary work, and participate so often in local council meetings that people say, 'go talk to Shobha, she knows what you need to know!' In fact, I’ve just been awarded an MBE for all my work with bringing the community together! I’ve also been on BBC’s The Big Questions.
Of course, sometimes my COPD is very frustrating, and it’s just willpower that keeps me going. I think I’m a very strong person. I’ve never walked away from anything. I’ve never said, 'I can’t do this'.