Florence Masebe on her asthma attack: ‘I thought I’d die’

Florence Masebe (PHOTO:  Dino Codevilla)
Florence Masebe (PHOTO: Dino Codevilla)

Cape Town -“You’re not dying, so stop panicking about dying,” the voice in her head chastised.

She was battling to breathe but Florence Masebe willed herself to stay calm as she was wheeled into the intensive care unit at a private Johannesburg hospital. It wasn’t the first time the actress thought she’d die.

She’d looked death in the eye when she was shot multiple times outside her home almost two decades ago, and three years ago she nearly died of a broken heart when her son drowned in their family pool.

But gasping for air that February night in Linksfield Hospital was unlike anything the actress had ever felt.

“My lungs were closing and the nebuliser (a respiratory device used to open the airways) they had me on wasn’t working,” Florence says.

She knew she needed to stay calm. The award-winning actress drew on the breathing techniques she’d learnt over the years to help her relax.

“I’ve learnt to be calm in times like these,” the 45-year-old says. The many curveballs life has hurled at her also helped Florence keep a cool head.

“With all the trials life has dished at me, I don’t feel so much anymore. It’s scary to acknowledge, but honestly, I’m like that. I only acknowledged the seriousness of the situation when seeing everyone else’s panic around me.”

It’s been a few weeks since her brush with death and Florence opens up to DRUM in an exclusive interview. In hindsight she knows how grave the situation was.

“I could’ve been in a lot of trouble if there was no help nearby. I’m thankful I was able to get to hospital.” It started with a cold that got progressively worse. When she struggled to breathe her daughter, Monthati (22), rushed her to hospital.

 “My feet were ice-cold and itchy. I asked my sister, who had been by my side, to rub them.” Moleboge Masebe-Maifala (55), a professional nurse, understood the lack of oxygen had affected the flow of blood to Florence’s feet and quickly got to work warming her up.

Hospital staff considered putting her on a ventilator to ensure she got enough oxygen but thankfully her condition improved and it wasn’t necessary. Her memory of that scary night is a bit blurry.

“It seemed like a dream. I had to ask my sister if she was in fact with me the day before.”

But Florence distinctly remembers feeling God and His angels with her. She prayed He’d guide the doctors and nurses who were treating her. And she realised keeping calm would make a huge difference in her recovery.

When we catch up Florence is slowly getting back into the swing of things by doing light exercises. She goes for physiotherapy to help her walk and climb stairs without gasping for air.

The last time she had an asthma attack was in 2010, “and back then they’d put me on a drip and steroids. They said I’d be fine and discharged me the next day.” Florence was diagnosed with asthma as a baby but only received specialised treatment in her 20s.

“My sister, Moleboge, who is more than 10 years my senior, remembers how as a three-year-old I’d cough throughout the night. She had to fall asleep with me on her back because it was better when I slept upright.”

“I haven’t had an asthma attack in many years, but I know that the more you panic the harder it becomes to breathe. The key is to stay calm.” Keeping calm has been her saving grace in tough situations.

Florence was already a household name in 1999 when she was shot multiple times by unknown assailants in a drive-by shooting outside her Bramley home in Joburg.

“I think life has trained me to get to a point where I make choices. I remember choosing to stay alive when I was shot. I’m just crazy, my family knows it too,” she jokes. She’s had her fair share of tragedy but Florence is resilient.

On her birthday three years ago her 18-month-old baby boy, Prince Masakona Matsila, drowned in the family’s swimming pool.

She opened up about her loss and coping with the pain of losing a child in an exclusive interview in November last, shortly after publishing a book of poems, The Heart Knows, to commemorate her son’s death.

All the tragedy that’s befallen her is part of a bigger plan, she believes. “I get my bits and pieces and I’ve learnt to not make too much of it – to take them as they come. There must be a reason.”

She’s been out of action following doctor’s orders but Florence, who is also an acting coach, is now more determined than ever to give back to young actors trying to break into the acting industry. Last year young actors from far and wide flocked to the free acting workshops Florence hosted at Trinity Management in Northcliff, Johannesburg.

Over the course of six weekends she taught them valuable skills, such as how to work with their voice and body when showing emotion, breathing techniques and memory work to remember lines – and now she plans to do it again. But this time round she’d like to partner with production companies that will give her students the opportunity to prove themselves in small roles.

“We all start somewhere. I don’t think people know I started off doing small roles as an actor before I got big roles.” She laughs at the fact that some people don’t know she acted in Soul City twice.

“I auditioned for the lead role and I didn’t make it, but I got a very nice cameo as an insurance sales lady who was jogging across Johannesburg in bright pink tights!” Seasons later Florence returned to the hit show as a lead actress. “I try to teach the young actors that it’s a journey of luck and absolute passion and commitment to making yourself better and getting it right.”

Her commitment to her craft was fuelled by the award-winning 2012 Tshivenda film Elelwani, which she starred in and produced. “It was a life-changing project. I’d never had to carry an entire cast as a lead actress in a film and it made me realise I have choices.” And now she plans to exercise those choices.

“I was rushed to ICU a couple of days ago. There was a ‘wow’ moment and I’m grateful to still be here.” Her recent health scare made Florence realise how fragile and short life is.

It’s always been her dream to go back to her hometown in Limpopo to give back to her community – and it seems it’s finally coming to fruition. The actress plans to create a thriving film and television business in Limpopo.

“I want to go back home. The deadline I gave myself is 2019 and I want to create a content hub in my home province. I’m running out of excuses not to do it.”

“I’ve given Johannesburg too much of my time. It’s time to give back to my own province.” She feels like she’s been given a new lease on life and plans to use it well.

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