World Asthma Day - One man's story of loss

HE said “I’m sorry.” Two words that I thought were only spoken in films, and when I hear them now in that context they bring a lump to my throat.

Those two words will stay with me to the day I die. A short sentence from a stranger to signal the end of a life. My brother, Mick, was dead.

It was 4am on a Saturday morning in October, 1983. The GP was standing on the upstairs landing of my parents’ house, telling my father that his 17 year-old son was dead. Mick had died an hour earlier, of an asthma attack. None of us knew asthma could kill.

Neither the GP, nor my father, knew that I was a party to that awful conversation. My father realised his youngest child was awake when he heard me sobbing though my closed bedroom door.

I had awoken an hour earlier. Mick was having a bad asthma attack, and his breathing was so loud it seemed the house was moving with it. That I woke at 3am that night still surprises me. I was then, and still am, a very heavy sleeper.

Mick was in our old bedroom, across the landing. It had become our ‘old’ bedroom because, three weeks earlier, I had decamped to my elder sister’s room, after she had left home to go to college. My mother was with Mick, as he had been unable to sleep.

A minute after I woke, I heard Mick say that he needed to use the toilet. Such was the ferocity of the asthma attack, my mother had to help him to the bathroom.

I heard the dull thud when he fell, and my mother’s screams when she couldn’t move him. I heard her rouse my father, and my older brother, Kevin, heard them struggle to carry Mick up to my parents’ bedroom and heard the frantic, initial attempts to revive him, before they called the doctor.

I heard everything during that unbearable hour, but, for some reason, I stayed in my bedroom throughout. I wonder, now, was it simply the self-defence mechanism of a very frightened 15-year-old boy.

I used to feel guilty about it, a little ashamed even. But I know now that’s pointless, because nothing that I could have done that night would have saved Mick.

Aside from the unspeakable shock of losing a brother, or a son, in that manner, the realisation that asthma had killed him made it worse, particularly for my parents. Three of their four sons were asthmatic, and the condition had been a constant feature of family life. I was the only boy who had escaped it.

I still knew about wheezing, inhalers, attacks and how the weather and animal hairs could trigger them. The word ‘nebuliser’ fascinated me, as it sounded like a device from another planet. But I didn’t know that asthma could kill you. After Mick died, we heard of several other fatal cases, but had never previously. Mick died 30 years ago this October. Sometimes, it seems so long ago that I feel that it almost happened to a different person. But when I think of that night, it’s still raw.

Mick’s death is the one that upsets me the most and I still find it impossible to talk about that night, in any detail, without crying.

Mick was 20 months older than me and, according to family legend, ‘mmmmmMick’ was my first proper word, uttered from a playpen on holidays in Ballycastle, Co Antrim.

At the time of his death, he and I didn’t have the best of relationships; however, that could probably be said of any streetwise 17-year-old and his nerdy, 15-year-old brother.

I have a school picture of me and Mick, in wonderful, hand-knitted purple jumpers. He’s seven, or maybe eight, and I’m five or six. It’s a brilliant picture, as the impish grin captures Mick perfectly — his granda used to call him the ‘devil boy’ — while I have the angelic smile of the mummy’s boy, which I was.

I have my own children now, two sons and a daughter, and becoming a parent brought a much greater realisation of the horror that my own mother and father had to face when they buried one of their children.

I regularly tell my boys, who are six and four, about their uncle, Mick. They’re too young to understand, but it’s important that they do. Their daddy has three brothers, not two; it’s just that one’s in heaven.

It’s the same when I meet new people and they ask about my family. I have four siblings — three brothers and a sister — and to describe my family in any other way would be to dishonour my brother’s memory.

The school picture of Mick and me hangs alongside several other family photos in our hall, and one of my infant daughter’s favourite games is when I point to each picture on the way up the stairs, and talk about who we are looking it.

There’s the same gap between my two sons as there was between Mick and I, and when I watch my boys play and fight, I wonder if Mick and I were just the same. I’m sure I can sometimes see the ‘devil boy’ in my youngest son, but maybe that’s wish-fulfilment on my part, especially as his second name is Michael.

When I was in my early 20s, one of my best friends died suddenly of an asthma attack. It was a grotesque coincidence.

Mark was one of the cleverest people I’d met, and he and his family had shown me great kindness in my early days in Dublin as a student journalist.

At Mark’s wake, I constantly heard a phrase that I remembered from 13 years previously — ‘I didn’t know asthma could kill you’. Sadly, I knew only too well.

* Paul O’Kane is public affairs director with Dublin Airport Authority (DAA). This article was written in a personal capacity and Paul’s fee has been donated to the Asthma Society of Ireland. Today is World Asthma Day. For more details on events and information on asthma, see


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