Asthma Acting


When reading BreathinStephen’s post Asthma Guilt Trip I immediately identified with this story.

  • I have spent years hiding my asthma from family, friends, co-workers and strangers
  • I have often not gone or waited too long to go to the ER or call 911
  • My wife and I have been sternly talked to by doctors about waiting too long
  • I’ve been belittled and laughed at by medical professionals who don’t even really understand the disease or my situation
  • I too have been described as stoic which either makes medical professionals not take me seriously enough or get a little freaked out because I’m too calm
  • I’ve also been around fellow-asthmatics who pulled the asthma card way too often just to avoid assignments/activities at school or avoid situations at work, etc – and I don’t want to be generalized as “that kind of person”

A Little History:

Almost as far back as I can remember, I’ve never consistently felt well and haven’t had a great breathing day since some time in 2005-2006.  My asthma wasn’t officially diagnosed until I was 10, but it was obvious at an early age I inherited the hay fever and allergies rampant on both sides of my family.  Unfortunately the asthma was a family thing too as my sister is a moderate asthmatic, my mother is a mild asthmatic, my mother’s sister is a severe asthmatic and my grandmother has asthma/COPD even though she’s never smoked.  I also come from families of tough people who don’t complain about medical stuff and have high to extreme pain tolerance.

When I was four or five years old my throat kind of hurt but I didn’t think it was a big enough deal to mention it to my mom.  I had it under control until one night in the bath I leaned over the edge of the tub puking blood all over the floor.  Obviously this freaked my mom out a bit and a trip to the ER discovered I had tonsillitis so bad that my tonsils had been bleeding down my throat for who knows long.  This was the first time I remember a doctor scolding me for not taking my health seriously.  I didn’t know what the big deal was because it was just a sore throat.  Not a big deal, right?

A year or so later on my first day of First Grade I decided to try out this monkey-bar-ish contraption on the playground.  I was holding onto this overhead bar swinging back and forth like an Olympic gymnast from the 1984 Los Angeles games when my hands slipped and I landed squarely on my face.  Yeah it hurt, yeah my face was covered in blood and my mom never got the stains out of my shirt.  Instead of crying, screaming, freaking or doing something else silly, I looked around for an adult, spotted someone about 40 yards away, calmly walked over to the man and tapped his leg until he noticed and turned around.

Me: Mister, I hurt myself.


Me: Yeah, a little bit.

Mister: We gotta get you to the school nurse!  I can’t believe you’re not crying.

The school nurse assessed me, got me cleaned up, put some ice on my face and called my mom.  They gave me the option of going home or back to class.  I went back to class.

After my family moved to the Midwest region of the US, those hereditary allergies really started to kick in.  This was followed by a childhood filled with bronchitis, chronic rhinitis and several bad bouts of pneumonia.  In high school I decided to play football which some thought should be added to one of David Letterman’s Top 10 lists of stupid things.  Freshman year ended with doctors forcing me to quit during the pre-season.  Sophomore year I made to the 2nd or 3rd game, Junior year I played until the last game of the season and I made it through my entire Senior year.  My coaches didn’t understand why I tried to play football being allergic to grass, but I had an amazing pulmonologist who told me he’d help me do whatever I wanted – I’d just have to work hard for it.

The Signs:

My whole life I’ve always been told to smile more, be more expressive, lighten up, etc.  Part of this is just my quiet, reserved, introverted personality and most of it is how I’m medically feeling at the moment.  When many think of asthma symptoms things like wheezing, coughing or short of breath would definitely top the list, and this is a great list if you’re the poster-child for mild, uncomplicated asthma.  A few years ago I started hanging out at the page for asthma and found a much better list compiled by a fellow healthboard user.

It has been a year since I originally posted this information. Based on a thread on the allergy board, I thought it would be useful for those newer members.

Most people think of asthma and think wheezing, shortness of breath, tight chest and coughing. There are often other signs of pending attacks as well. I’ve found that the earlier I recognize a pending attack, the faster I can get a jump on treating it and trying to keep the severity of the attack down. Watching for these signs has become part of my asthma action plan.

Asthma Early Warning Signs:

  • itchy chin
  • itchy or sore throat
  • dark under eye circles
  • stuffy, runny or congested nose
  • tiredness
  • mood change–grouchy or extra quiet
  • itchy, glassy or watery eyes
  • thirst
  • sneezing
  • stomach ache
  • headache
  • fever
  • restlessness
  • eczema flare-up
  • sweating
  • heartburn
  • change in face color- pale or flushed
  • throat clearing
  • restlessness
  • heart beating faster
  • trouble sleeping
  • yawning

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve finally sought medical attention for a severe asthma flare up only to be told, “well, I don’t hear any wheezing….so what’s the problem?”  There’s an issue that can occur when your airways constrict so tightly it is impossible to wheeze.  Sometimes I’ve had to do three nebulizer treatments back-to-back because once I got my airways opened up a bit the wheezing kicked in almost immediately, reversing the benefits of the medicine.  I’ve experienced almost all the above symptoms and have even come to rely on some of them to make sure I pay attention to what’s happening with my asthmatic self.  Another great help in recognizing symptoms has been my wife.  Filing taxes jointly isn’t the only bonus.  Being married has helped me manage my asthma in ways I never thought possible.  I have someone who is around me often and knows me better than most.  I asked Liz to come up with a list of symptoms she notices which others do not.  She even writes about me occasionally on her blog that gets quoted by places like The Atlantic.

I can tell you are having trouble when:

  • You are sitting extremely still instead of the subtle movements that people usually make, like fidgeting, shifting your weight, etc.
  • Your breathing begins to sound labored, rapid, slow, or otherwise different from normal.
  • You experience a sudden mood change or irritability that doesn’t really match the situation
Those are three biggies.

So why the act?

I don’t know if it’s just a regional thing, but whenever I’m at a doctor’s office (at least once every week or two) they have Sanjay Gupta on a TV along with other people talking about healthy eating, healthy lifestyles, managing chronic conditions, etc.  And because I’m in there so often I tend to see the same stories over and over.  A while back they were talking about heart attacks and how women are more likely to ignore signs and not want to bother anyone for help.  They even showed a short video starring Elizabeth Banks.

Even though this is a mother trying to wrangle kids, work and a household – this short film jumped out to me as a metaphor for how asthmatics handle their condition as well.  I don’t think I’m ashamed or afraid of my asthma and I definitely don’t ignore it – that’s almost impossible.  I think one of the reasons I do what I do is because I’ve experienced so many extreme reactions when letting people know I can’t breathe.  Either I’m ignored (I had a gym teacher senior year in high school refuse to let me retrieve an inhaler once during class – so I walked out of the gym with her yelling at me about detention) because I’m not acting out enough or people flip as if I’m about to stroke out and die.  Even though I have, at times, a life threatening condition that doesn’t mean I don’t want to feel “normal” like everyone else.

I like to think I’ve gotten better about the communication thing over the past five years.  Some of it has been absolutely necessary, but I believe it’s mostly me becoming better at managing my condition.  A good example of this would be trying to obtain a handicap parking space at work this summer instead of walking the one mile round trip every day from the far parking lot.  Of course parking services denied my request, but that’s another story for another day.  Education is key on this issue.  I recently read a story about a 17 year old young man who attempted to seek help during a severe asthma attack in a Tim Hortons only to have the staff completely ignore him.  Thank God a woman in the restaurant noticed the situation and called 911.  While this is one extreme example of a reaction to asthma, I believe the population could stand to be educated more on what the disease looks like and how to appropriately respond.  It would definitely help the estimated 25 million or more asthmatics living in the United States all breathe a little easier out in the world.