Growing up with Asthma

Asthma is a terrible, frightening disease. It is all about not being able to breathe–to not be able to take a breath. Exhaling is long, but inhaling is brief and unsatisfactory with your breath choking you. And it goes on and on with an interminable sense of never being able to breathe again.

As a child, I had many frightening and painful asthma episodes. My parents were frantic to know how to deal with it. The best medical minds of the day believed it to be a food allergy. So, one by one, they eliminated my favorite foods from my diet–to no effect. But it deprived me of mangoes–my favorite fruit–and corn–my favorite vegetable. I don’t recall being limited on the fluids I drank.

During an attack, treatment at the time was a powder placed on some charcoal that gave off smoke that I was supposed to breathe. Can you imagine being unable to take a breath, and when you did it was smoke filled? Horrible! I hated it!

I was around seven years old when an American physician came to our city. His daughter and I became best friends, and we visited each other’s homes on the weekends.

It was during one of my visits to her home that I had another asthma attack. Her father immediately approached me with a syringe filled with epinephrine. Accustomed as I was to being injected with needles with little hooks on them, I protested, but he persisted, gave me the shot, and the attack was miraculously over!

Fast forward to high school. The sports I remember in our physical education classes were swimming, baseball and tennis. Swimming was the hardest–especially laps. I was always left breathless and frequently sent home with an asthma attack. My mother was still convinced that some food allergy caused my asthma. So, we eliminated more foods from my life. But the attacks persisted. Waking up in the middle of the night unable to breathe was common. In those days, physicians made house calls and our poor physician learned to know our house very well. We always left the front door unlocked for him.

The older I grew, the attacks diminished until I assumed they were a thing of the past. Until jogging became a national craze. Prior to that time, my exercise comprised walking. Depending upon where I lived, I was involved with tennis, racquetball, skiing or horseback riding. None of these things demanded a consistent pace as jogging did. I could rarely slow jog down a block without becoming desperately breathless. Then I would have to stop and wait until I could get my breath again. Much as I wanted to run, I could not do so.

Eventually I realized my asthma was exercise induced and not a food allergy.

As I looked back over my childhood and examined my triggers, it was always some kind of continuous exercise–whether hiking, running, swimming, playing hard, or whatever- that lead to an attack. Anything that demanded extra breathing effort.

I am grateful to the scientists who discovered epinephrine to control the attacks. I am grateful to the physicians who administered it.

Today, there are nurse scientists who are looking at the problem of childhood asthma. I have not read their work as they never submitted it to the Western Journal of Nursing Research, which I edited.

The American Lung Association lists the triggers for asthma in children and while they mention exercise, it is at the bottom of the list. So, it’s no wonder it was so difficult to prevent my asthma attacks when I was a child.

Today, I have COPD, which my lung specialist does not distinguish from asthma. He says, “What’s the difference?” The difference is that my breathing issues are now chronic rather than episodic, so I need a medicated puffer twice a day.

The list of triggers given by the American Lung Association easily applies to my childhood asthma experience. I grew up when everyone smoked, so I grew up with second-hand smoke. (But I also took up smoking for myself, not knowing its dangers.) I also have trouble with changes in temperature, aerosols and other household cleaners, all of which are on the list. So, I can relate to the list.

The difference now is that there are better methods of controlling asthma and COPD than breathing in smoke.

One of my faculty colleagues at UCLA (Dr Donna Vredevoe) suffered constantly from asthma but rarely complained. (I believe she finally died of it.) These were in the days when everyone smoked. We faculty met in rooms with closed windows and smoked. She asked us occasionally to not smoke, but in our addicted self-absorption we just felt she was an alarmist. Halls where we nurses held our conventions were blue with smoke, as were our movie theaters. We did not understand secondhand smoke was a problem. But for asthmatics, it was and is lethal.

If you are an asthmatic or the parent of a child with asthma, I do suggest you read the triggers to an attack listed by the American Lung Association and try to avoid as many as possible. Please don’t insist upon your child joining in athletics that will trigger an attack – respect their need for sedentary activities. Please don’t label them as “lazy.”

Asthma affects lives, just as other handicaps do–it is just not a visible handicap. Did you have asthma as a child? What did your parents do to help you?

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