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Elephants, Inhalers, & Being “That Girl” (Experiences with adult asthma)

My only memories of that week are the sounds. The chirps of the monitors. Creaking of the door. The rhythmic popping on my back that jolted my body with each hit. The whispers in the hall as they spoke with my mom. They told her I was quite ill; that it had been worsened by my asthma and I would be there a while.

That was the first we’d ever heard of it. Up until that week I had been a healthy, spirited little girl. Sure, I sneezed a lot and broke out in itchy rashes from dust and grass. But asthma? That was for little kids that were sick all the time, not athletic little girls. In hindsight, there were little signs all along. It just took a new furry friend (a precious cat) to push me over the edge.

That week ushered in a new chapter of my childhood – one where I had to be more cautious. Heartbroken, I quit my beloved competitive gymnastics team because the chalk dust in the gym would send me into uncontrollable coughing fits. I carried an awkward little orange and yellow canister with me in case I had trouble breathing, although I didn’t expect to use it often. But then it would hit me unexpectedly. Like the time I laughed and laughed until I literally couldn’t laugh anymore – because I was struggling to breathe. I remember my friend staring at me as I tried to eek enough oxygen out, and the feel of the pressure on my chest; like a rogue circus elephant decided to visit and plop down right on top of me.

It’s been twenty-five years since I was first diagnosed with asthma, and most of the memories from this time period have been replaced. By the time I entered college I thought I was better – that it was a transient illness I’d outgrown. So, that’s what I kept telling everyone. The orange canister I’d carried moved to the back shelf of the closet and was, for the most part, forgotten.

After college I moved back to the DC area, where I had been first diagnosed. Still insistent that I’d outgrown my asthma, I missed all the signs. The way cold air would literally take the breath out of me; how I seemed to cough for months at the time; the visits to the ER on the nights my old trusty elephant friend had returned and parked his big gray bottom on my chest. I had an inhaler, but wheezing was a rare occurrence so I figured I had to be fine. I finally saw a physician who treated me for recurrent bronchitis and he described my airways as “twitchy” but told me that I had outgrown the asthma diagnosis. He prescribed maintenance medications and a rescue inhaler, and I went on my way.

By the time I became pregnant with my first child, those medicines had long since been back on the shelf. When I found that pregnancy brought out my symptoms I just shook it off as being one of the many strange things that occurs while growing a human. That was 7.5 years ago.

Up until a few weeks ago I hadn’t given any of the aforementioned events any thought. I am in good health and have been busy putting every extra ounce of energy into my tiny humans. Sure, I’ve had a persistent cough for the past year that just seems to be getting worse, but it’s just my allergies because I don’t have asthma, right? Yes, it’s been bad enough that an employee handed me a bag of cough drops the second we boarded the plane to the FARE Conference. Bad enough that I had to leave several of the sessions that I was attending because I didn’t want to be that person, coughing in the back of the room.

But then pneumonia spread through our house and our littlest person was hit hard. After two weeks with a lingering illness that we were told was a little virus, he took a turn for the worse. When I saw him grabbing for his chest I rushed him to the doctor. Sure enough, he was diagnosed with pneumonia and treated aggressively. In addition to oral steroids and antibiotic, we had to bring him in everyday for injections of additional antibiotic and perform around-the-clock breathing treatments. Since he’s only a toddler, that meant most of the treatments happened in my lap (or directly next to me), while I held him and showed him how to breathe, just as I had when I was a kid.

My dad (who happens to have his Doctorate in pulmonary physiology) is the one that noticed the difference the treatments made. Not only did they help our little dude, but an unexpected side-effect was that my cough finally let up. The cough that I’ve had for the better part of 7 years… He told me I needed to see a doctor, but for some reason I regressed to being an angry little kid that was being forced to quit her favorite sport. I resented being pressured to go, but finally gave in and met with a pulmonologist. Admittedly, I whined the whole way there and when he asked why I was there, I responded (very brattily) – “I’m just here to make my parents shut up. I used to have asthma but don’t anymore. I just have this annoying cough.”

The two hours that followed were enlightening, to say the least. I learned that I did, in fact, still have asthma and that it was very much uncontrolled. My lungs were damaged, but the damage would be reversible, and I would have to go back on inhaled steroids and carry my rescue inhaler with me as well.

The most valuable thing I learned that day was about taking the time to care for myself… As parents, it’s our job to care for our children. They’re dependent upon us. They need us to look out for them. But the kicker is that we can’t take care of anyone else if we don’t first take care of ourselves. It may take time away from cleaning, and cooking, and running a business or whatever else you have to do. But your family needs you to be healthy. Because nobody wants their mom to be the person coughing in the back of the room.

– Holly

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