Tuesday, March 1, 2011

William wants a cat.

My Asthma and Allergy Journey is a blog for parents of kids with asthma and allergies, created by Allergy & Asthma Network Mothers of Asthmatics (AANMA) and written by Kathleen Elder, whose son was recently diagnosed with asthma. Follow along as Kathleen, her son William, their family and friends learn more about life with asthma. E-mail your questions, thoughts, stories and words of wisdom to editor@aanma.org to join the conversation.

William wants a cat.

So much, in fact, that he looked around his room the other day at the “favorite things” he spends his allowance on and said, “I have to stop buying so many things.” So now he’s saving his treasure for a cat.  
Not just any cat – Moses. A sweet, peaches-and-cream cat up for adoption at our local pet store. “All I want is Moses” is Will’s regular refrain. But is this a deep-felt desire to share his love and affection with a cat, or is it just something else he wants, like a new toy?  
Complicating things, of course, are his allergies and asthma. The allergy test came back positive: Will’s allergic to cats. How allergic is he – is it severe, something that could cause major asthma symptoms? We don’t know. Even if it’s not severe, could it be overwhelming combined with other allergens at home that are harder to control? (I fully admit I’m not on my hands and knees scrubbing our house on a daily basis, but we do live in a pretty clean house. I know we live with dust mites among the toys, books and furniture. And I could probably freeze the stuffed animals and wash his mattress cover more often...)
So far we’ve put off the final decision. Our agreement with Will: We’ll wait until we have another visit with the allergist (his first with the new allergist). But one day we have to decide – and I’m not sure which side I’m rooting for.
I have a long history with cats. Always loved them. In sixth grade I adopted my first cat, Gwenevere. Then there was Corky, Kingsley and finally – Jake. It’s Jake and the allergies that are vying for top spot on the “cons” list. Jake had a tough life. He was rescued from a fraternity house after he’d endured unknown horrors, and he instantly attached to me. He followed me everywhere, slept on my bed and woke me every morning, meowing and kneading my chest until I woke up. 
When I started dating my husband, Jake made it clear he wasn’t happy. Meowing loudly whenever he was around, Jake made it known – this new guy was not welcome. But one day we learned just how much Jake wasn’t pleased. “Something smells,” I said, sniffing around for the source.  Jake had sprayed my husband’s favorite coat – his favorite non-washable coat. He wasn’t fond of cats before. You can probably guess how he felt after that! 
And now we have a son who loves cats and desperately wants Moses. Our only hope for my husband is that the doctors say Will’s too allergic to have one. And Will’s only hope is that she says it’s okay. But do we really want to wish our son is too allergic to something? What do you do when you have a child whose heart is absolutely set on a pet he can’t have, and a husband who isn’t the biggest fan of the pet his son wants?

Monday, February 14, 2011

I ♥ Our Basement

On this holiday of Cupids and hearts, I have an unusual proclamation: I love our family’s basement. (Wonder if Hallmark makes a card for that…)

Over the years our basement has been a haven. It’s a storage space for zillions of accumulated toys. It’s a toddler-safe playroom, site of countless Nerf gun wars – and an excellent place for children to hang out when Mom is close to losing her mind from the noise and craziness while attempting to make dinner.

But after a while, the carpeting in this much-loved, much-used space was in desperate need of replacement. Will’s asthma moved the project up on the priority list and also made it more daunting as we searched for the perfect carpet replacement.

Everywhere I looked for information about asthma and carpet, carpet removal topped the list of things to do in the home. But just like everything else in life, we had to find a balance. With two school-age boys and a toddler in the house, the idea of installing a hardwood or hard-surface floor (vinyl or tile) was not appealing. Yes, a hardwood floor would be durable and easy to clean, but who wants to roll around on a hard floor when it’s time to wrestle? Or play with blocks on a cold surface?

Low VOCs. When I first walked into the flooring store I thought the sales guy was going to take one look at my list of demands and walk away. First off, we wanted something with low VOCs (volatile organic compounds). (James T. Li, MD, an asthma and allergy specialist with the Mayo Clinic, says “synthetic flooring initially releases gasses known as VOCs that can worsen asthma.”) It had to be easy to clean, and the overall basement-floor scheme had to involve hard-surface flooring in at least some of the rooms. I wanted something that would fit into our budget that was also environmentally friendly. Oh yeah, and it had to be comfy to crawl around on.

Turns out, there are hundreds of options on the market. I was pleasantly surprised to find so many low-VOC options. I learned that low-allergen and Earth-friendly often go hand in hand. Budget-wise – not always. If we went with the hard-surface flooring all over the basement (family room, bathroom, laundry room) we would almost triple the cost when you factored in the cost of an area rug to warm things up. Just not in the cards. Countless trips to the showroom later, after lugging sample after sample home, we found our perfect solution: a low-VOC, easy-to-clean carpet in the play area and a beautiful bamboo floor everywhere else.

Dust trappers. Figuring out flooring options was only half the battle when we realized we had to sort through toys and get them up off the floor (where they would trap dust and allergens). We opted for floor-to-ceiling shelves of large, clear plastic bins with lids for sorting and storing the cars, trains, games, stuffed animals (I think it’s probably time to freeze them once again), blocks and, of course, the Nerf guns. 

I can now honestly say I love our basement. Making dinner is slightly less chaotic and the boys are happy to have their playroom back. No wheezing and sneezing from Will when he plays down there, either. Nerf gun war anyone?

From AANMA’s website: Remove carpeting if possible and replace with vinyl, tile or hardwood flooring. If it’s not possible to remove carpeting, vacuum thoroughly every week with a HEPA-equipped vacuum cleaner.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Me Time: Hot Yoga

It’s 105 degrees in the room where I escape and recharge. Cool by instructor Jim’s standards, but not mine. And yet to me – it’s heaven.

It’s hot yoga. Twenty-six postures, twice each, of absolute “me time.” Dandayamana Janushirasana: standing, head to knee. This is a free zone – no sink full of breakfast dishes, no chauffeuring to doctor’s appointments, school and activities, no constant drone of “Do your homework! Stop tackling your brother!” It’s absolute silence other than the instructor’s directions. Dandayamana Dhanurasana: standing bow. I don’t have to make any decisions here or answer any questions. I just listen. Listen to my thoughts. Listen to my body.

 “Okay, kiddos – everybody up,” Jim calls as he walks into the room. Everyone silently rises and stands in the middle of their mats. “No talking. Drink all you want, but please drink only between the poses.” I love this part: No talking. No awkward chatting with your neighbor, no phone; no whining, screaming, fighting. I savor every minute of dripping sweat, panting breath, silent cursing – and, somehow, peace.

This is where I go so I can be the Mom I want to be for my kids. As the sweat pours down my arms and legs (and I mean really pours), I can feel the tension release and I know my worries are all little things that soon enough will be gone. I lie on my mat, feet together, palms up, eyes open and stare at the ceiling, smiling to myself. I know the room is full of 50 or more other people, but I feel alone and able to clear my mind.

When it’s all over, I feel ready for the sink full of dishes, the dirty faces, the homework and endless doctor appointments. Real life somehow doesn’t feel as much like a pressure cooker after this self-imposed hot chamber. But even more important, I’m relaxed and better able to enjoy my kids. I can see the beautiful smiles underneath the dirt and hear the requests for snuggling up with a book together that hide just beneath the teasing and fighting. I may not be able to travel to Italy, India and Bali, but I can find 90 minutes to get me back to me. 

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Language of Asthma

It seems like the more I learn about asthma, the more I realize I don’t know. I’m now learning a whole new language of asthma – the correct terms for medications and devices, even how to accurately describe the kind of asthma my son has.

Recently while talking to friends at AANMA, I said that my son doesn’t have severe asthma. What I meant was that, knock on wood, he’s never had an attack that sent us rushing to the hospital. However, I learned there's a difference between having a diagnosis of asthma and experiencing asthma symptoms. That you have asthma whether you are having symptoms or not. And that asthma can be severe, moderate or mild, depending on the day. In fact, asthma can fluctuate from mild to severe or vice versa within the same day.
This is an often confusing concept for someone straining to find telltale signs of asthma. I know the doctor can measure Will’s lung function with spirometry, hear asthma in his chest and even see physical evidence of trapped air on a chest X-ray. Meanwhile I’m left looking (without X-ray vision) and listening as a parent who is just now learning what asthma is. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around this new part of our lives – and trying to figure out how I can avoid being either obsessive or laissez-faire.

I know I’ll get better at recognizing his early warning signs as we keep track of symptoms and peak flow meter readings on our AsthmaTracker™ daily diary, but for now, I rely heavily on our doctor. That’s why I always keep our check-up appointments, even when there seems to be nothing wrong. At check-ups, my doctor has been invaluable in answering my many questions and just putting me at ease.

What are your thoughts on the language of asthma – anything you’ve learned that you’d like to share, questions about confusing terms? Feel free to comment below!

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Little Red Med Bag Takes a Trip to the Tree Farm

It’s that time of year again -- time to head out in the old front-wheel-drive sleigh to find the perfect Christmas tree.  Where is Chevy Chase when you need him?  On second thought, maybe we are better off on our own – my husband remembered the saw.  The forecast is calling for cold, wind, rain and sleet -- in other words, the perfect day.  After bundling everyone up in our warmest winter gear, two last-minute sprints back inside for forgotten items, we were off ……well, off and around the block at least. 

“Mom, my breathing feels funny,” William said from the backseat.  The third thing I was supposed to run back inside for, but forgot: the red medicine bag.  We turned around and headed for home.  One minute later I was sprinting up the driveway for the third time.  I grabbed the bag and a cup of water and we were good to go.  William had his two doses done and rinsed his mouth before we were out of the neighborhood and his breathing felt normal again.  Bullet dodged. 

With countless road trips under our belts, we have become pros at doing the inhaler on the go.  The little red medicine bag was quite possibly one of my best, if not simplest, purchase.  It is just a small, red, zippered pouch just large enough to easily fit his two inhalers, holding chamber, peak flow meter and pharmacy drug information and prescriptions for refills.  The red lets the whole family know this is a medicine bag.  William recognizes it instantly as his asthma bag and it travels easily everywhere we go.  There is even a handy handle on one end to make grabbing it a cinch as we run out the door. 

In a rather chaotic household, this is the one thing that is always in its place right there in the spice cabinet.  Easy to access for morning meds at breakfast and any other time they may be needed. 

Back at the Christmas tree farm, we were successful in our search and successful in keeping William healthy for the rest of day so we could all enjoy one of our family’s favorite traditions. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Thanksgiving -- Who's Sleeping Where?

Thanksgiving for my family isn’t just about the turkey with all the trimmings, it’s about who’s sleeping where.  When you are one of six adult children (with assorted significant others and offspring) traveling over the river and through the woods to descend upon one, small Cape Cod home, sleeping arrangements rank high on the list of concerns. 

This year, the adults got the upstairs bedrooms. Our 21-month-old would stay with me and my husband; William would sleep with his brother and cousins somewhere else. But where? The basement is an automatic no-go.  After 40 years, six kids and a couple of dogs and cats, my parents’ basement is now the proper resting place for countless treasures and more than a little dust. William’s asthma would definitely be a problem down there.  The winterized porch just off the living room seemed the perfect spot.   A clean tile floor with a rug meant few allergens; I figured asthma shouldn’t be a problem there. 

Bedtime went swimmingly.  Well, as swimmingly as it does for five cousins giggling, whispering, and maybe, trying to get a little bit of sleep.  In other words, the perfect slumber party.  Once everyone was tucked in tight, I snuck upstairs where my husband, 21-month-old, and I had been lucky enough to score one of the bedrooms.   After 12 hours of driving, I was ready for some serious sleep. 

An hour later, my brother woke me, saying William had been coughing and it sounded like he was wheezing in his sleep.  I pulled on a sweater and went downstairs to check.  He was sound asleep, happily wheezing away.  The porch, it turned out, was not the world’s most perfect sleeping spot – for Will, anyway.  I scooped up a sleeping, wheezing William (8-year-old boys are surprisingly heavy in their sleep!) and carried him to the couch in the living room.  Tucked him in, dragged his mattress to the floor next to him, and snuggled in for long winter’s nap.  His breathing improved quickly. 

I’m not sure exactly what triggered the wheezing, but for the rest of our visit he slept peacefully on the couch.  He stayed up a bit later than usual, screenings of White Christmas and Notre Dame football kept him up later, but I think he loved it.  Next time, we may need to lobby for an extra bedroom.

Friday, November 19, 2010


Overwhelmed. That’s my word of the day (or week or month…). It began with the asthma diagnosis and grew with the pile of prescriptions the doctor handed me as he turned and walked out the door. It became my daily reality when I discovered the gigantic list of everything recommended to create a healthier environment at home. 
Sometimes I’m completely overwhelmed when I think of everything we’re supposed to do to make our home a healthier place for our son. But truthfully, these changes should also make our home healthier for the entire family.
We’ve done some serious de-cluttering. We’ve covered mattresses and pillows with dust-mite protectors. We’ve changed the air filter in the furnace (turns out we haven’t been changing it nearly often enough). We’ve picked up the pace of our household cleaning. We’ve frozen more little stuffed critters than I can count. 
I find myself bouncing back and forth – some days I feel like I have some control over the situation, and some days I feel scared and overwhelmed, worried that I’m not doing enough fast enough.
There’s a real art to balancing the most important projects with our budget and time. It’s not like life stops and allows you time and space to prep your home and life for asthma. There will always be laundry, dinner, school, work, bills, play dates, sports and, if you’re lucky, vacation.  
I think the key is perspective, being able to take a deep breath and visualize the goal I’m working toward. The picture I have in my mind is of what our house will look like when all the projects are done. But, until then, I find peace in knowing that I’m doing what I can each day – and knowing that each day, little by little, our home becomes a healthier place.   
Feeling overwhelmed, too? Check out these resources from Allergy & Asthma Network Mothers of Asthmatics (AANMA), created especially with the newly diagnosed in mind:
Tip: Use AANMA’s free Indoor AIRepair: At Home kit as a room-by-room guide to making the air more breathable for your family.
E-mail your asthma or allergy story, frustrations, triumphs, advice and questions to editor@aanma.org.