Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Two myths about asthma

My parents told me two things about asthma that weren't true, though both were reassuring. I clung to these beliefs for many years, and they helped me get through some breathless times.

The first untrue thing they told me was that having asthma was a sign of intelligence. Smart people were more likely to have asthma, and people with asthma were usually smart. I don't really know how they came up with this one, but I do know it was a comfort to an unathletic girl like me (my worst grades were in P.E.) who was always chosen last for any sports team.

The second reassuring thing they told me--and this came straight from my mother, who had asthma herself, and should obviously know--was that no one ever died of asthma. No matter how short of breath I felt, no matter how frightened, I was safe. Asthma meant discomfort, not danger. I clung to that certainty throughout my teen years, a lot longer than I should have and in the face of some pretty strong evidence pointing the other way.

I first wheezed when I was four years old, and I remember being oddly proud of myself. It was Thanksgiving evening, and all our relatives had gone home. I felt breathless, and my chest started started squeaking just like my mother's. There was a fuss. My father carried me up to bed and my mother tucked me in. Talking in low voices, they concluded it was probably the shrimp at dinner that had caused it. Because I liked the tiny pinky orange commas of shrimp nestled in mayonnaise in the wooden salad bowls,I was sorry I wouldn't get to eat them anymore, but otherwise I didn't feel too bad. It was nice to be fussed over and tucked in.

What I didn't realize at the time was that I had just acquired a new identity, one that would follow me all my life. Instead of being just Penny, from now on I was Penny-has-asthma. For a child, there were advantages. Sometimes instead of going out to school sports, I got to stay inside and read. Sometimes I got to stay home from school altogether and spend a lazy day with my mother. The price for that was word games. At some point during the day, my mother set up a game of Jotto or Scrabble or Boggle, and she was merciless.

Other times were not so great. I'd be hunched over, heaving for breath, and my mother would take me to see our general practitioner. Dr. Ahmann had a crewcut and talked slowly in a gravelly voice. He filled a glass syringe with clear liquid and mopped my arm with a cotton ball dipped in alcohol. The shot of epinephrine burned as it went in. I squeezed my eyes shut and didn't cry. Within minutes my airways opened. I coughed my lungs clear, and I felt a lot better, except for my jittery stomach and the way my hands shook.

When I wasn't bad enough for a shot, my mother shook her own inhaler for me and held it in front of my open mouth, depressing the plunger just as I took a deep breath. One inhaler tasted horribly bitter, and I only wanted to take it if I really needed it. The other tasted sicky-sweet, which was much worse: just the thought of using it made me shudder with disgust. The inhalers helped, but like the shots, they made me shake. My mother called it "shaky medicine," and once, just after I had taken a huge puff on the inhaler, a small earthquake shivered the house. "Wow, that WAS shaky medicine!" I told my mother in awe.

Ten percent of American children are now being diagnosed with asthma. The treatments get better all the time, but there are still kids struggling with asthma that can't easily be controlled. Kids with asthma are sometimes frightened or feel alone. For them and their parents, I've decided to write an occasional post on asthma. You others - you who breathe with minimal friction - please feel free to skip these posts.

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