World Asthma Day was celebrated worldwide on Tuesday. According to a recent report by the Global Initiative for Asthma, South Africa has the world’s fourth highest asthma death rate among five- to 35-year-olds.
Of the estimated 3.9 million South Africans with asthma, 1.5 percent die of this condition annually. In the village of Lomanyaneng in Mahikeng, asthma has almost wiped out Tefo Muse’s family, taking his wife and two sons.
Botho Molosankwe looks at how Muse has lived with a family of acute asthma sufferers over the years, and the daily challenges he faces as he hopes and prays that his only remaining son survives.If there’s anyone who knows the devastating effects of asthma, it’s Tefo Muse.
Over the years, this high school maths teacher watched helplessly as asthma claimed the lives of his family members.
It started with his wife, who succumbed to an asthma attack at 29, leaving Muse to raise their sons, the youngest of whom was only two years old at the time.
Four years later, in 1996, an asthma attack claimed his second-born son, Hlekiso, who was 13 at the time.
Over the years, all went relatively well except for the odd, manageable attack, giving Muse hope that his two remaining sons, who also suffered from a severe form of asthma, had learnt how to manage the condition.
However, tragedy struck again when Muse’s last-born son, Takatso, died last year from an asthma attack in Bloemfontein, where he was studying and working.
Now Muse is left with only his first-born, Saniki, who is also asthmatic. All that he hopes for is that Saniki at least survives.
While Muse’s wife Mimi came from a family with a history of the condition, she wasn’t born with asthma. It was only after she gave birth to their first son that she developed the condition.
According to Muse, the asthma Mimi developed was so severe that despite all the medication, including a nebuliser and sprays, there wasn’t much they could do to manage it.
“The only way to control it was to constantly rush her to hospital. Sometimes if there was no car, it was difficult. You’d have a nebuliser and a spray, but nothing would help,” he says.
For Muse, nothing is as traumatic as having loved ones who suffer from acute asthma, as he is constantly anxious, wondering if they are okay.
“Living with asthmatic people is traumatic. You are never altogether free, and you end up being the one who is ill as you are always worried that you’ll get a message that something isn’t right.
“You might be relaxing with people, but always ask yourself ‘What is going on at home?’ Even when they have medication, you are constantly anxious. When the attack comes, sometimes the medication does not help. You try your best, even take them outside so they can get some fresh air, but nothing helps,” he says.
The day he lost his wife, they were at a party having fun. Mimi, he recalls, was very happy and excited, and was laughing.
After a few minutes, she went outside, saying she wasn’t feeling well.
At that moment they realised she was having an attack. She was rushed to hospital, but didn’t make it.
“There was no warning, nothing,” Muse says.
With an entire family suffering from acute asthma, some people took pity on the family and would give Muse “remedies” that they said would help.
Among them was to take a crab, boil it, then give the water to the children.
Other people told him to boil some dagga, then give them the water.
Still others told him to find a pig that had just given birth, milk it and give the milk to the children to drink.
“I tried everything, but nothing happened. We would even get crabs from the river, but nothing helped.
“People would tell you about things that were very impossible, like getting the milk of a pig that has just given birth. There was so much advice. I tried everything and spent lots of money.
“Whatever remedy I got from people, I tried it. At some point, they even said I should not have vegetables in the house as they are allergic.
“I didn’t know what to do. The children were young and I was a single parent.”
However, none of the remedies helped, and the asthma attacks were so frequent that staff at the nearby Mafikeng Provincial Hospital got to know Muse and his family well.
He would burst through the doors, carrying one of the children limp from an asthmatic attack, and no one would ask him for a file or to wait for a doctor.
He would be taken to a room, and nurses and doctors would start working on the child.
After years of surviving attacks, Hlekiso’s last attack was so severe that he didn’t survive it.
It was during Easter of 1996, and Muse had bought a sheep and was supposed to slaughter it for the holidays. But he wasn’t feeling well and decided not to slaughter it that day.
Hlekiso, however, couldn’t wait any longer, and he and his friends slaughtered it.
They even cooked the liver and ate it.
Hlekiso, Muse recalls, was very excited the whole day, dancing, jumping and singing, and telling his father what he had done.
“I told him to calm down, as too much excitement was not good for him and might lead to an attack.”
Muse was right, as in the morning he heard familiar calls of “Daddy, daddy, I’m not okay.”
Hlekiso was bundled into a car and rushed to hospital. Muse drove so fast that they hit a cow.
They weren’t injured and managed to get Hlekiso to the hospital, but like his mother, he didn’t make it.
“I realised with Hlekiso that too much excitement must have trigged that attack. Asthmatic people must never be too excited or too angry.”
The trauma of losing his wife and son to asthma made Muse want to refuse when his last-born, Takatso, wanted to go and study in Bloemfontein. He had become too protective of his two remaining sons as he didn’t want to lose them.
“I didn’t want Takatso to go to the Free State as I knew there were times when the Bloemfontein temperature would drop as low as minus 1°C. I was very worried about him. I finally let him go because the course he wanted to do was not available at the University of North West, but I used to call him all the time.”
While there, Takatso would get attacks, but not tell his father, as he was trying to protect him because he knew he was still trying to deal with the deaths of his wife and son from asthma.
In April last year, however, Muse got the dreaded phone call.
Takatso had an attack around 6pm, and not even the nebuliser or the spray could open his airways.
He was rushed to hospital but died about two hours later. He was 27 years old.
Muse says that after everything he has gone through, the only thing that makes him wake up and face the world is prayer.
“All I can say to people going through the same thing is listen, pray and have hope. The hope I have now is that my first-born, Saniki, will survive. All the others died very young, but he is already approaching his 40s, so I have hope. I am always so worried about him that I can’t sleep.”
Muse says he has never had a support group where he could speak to people going through the same thing, but that it was something he would have appreciated over the years.