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

Friday, November 12, 2010

A New Normal

“Don’t forget to pack the red medicine bag!” I yell, mostly to myself. Did I already grab it? Did I remember the refills? Two puffs, twice a day, plus the back-up inhaler. Did we pack enough? Peak flow meter? Check. Nasal spray? Check. Just when I thought it was impossible, the must-pack list for family vacation just got longer. 

The day my son was diagnosed with asthma
Three months ago, my 7-year-old son was diagnosed with asthma. We were in his allergist’s office for a routine appointment, trying desperately to control his exploding seasonal allergies. Even in the face of multiple medications, his allergies would continue to flare up each spring. We’d tried at least four different medications but always ended up back in the doctor’s office after missing three or four days of school. His face and eyes would swell to the point that I would hardly recognize my own child, and he would spend his days open-mouthed (unable to breathe through his nose) and furiously scratching at his itching, burning eyes.

The day he was diagnosed was one of those days. He had mostly recovered from the swollen face, but his allergies were still clearly not under control. His tall and lanky doctor moved back and forth across the room. Not in the slow, methodical way you expect doctors to move, but more erratically – like he kept remembering what he was doing and changing his mind and trying something different. Asking William to move here, go there, blow on this. Try again. Harder this time. 

The doctor looked at the gauge on the side of the hollow tube.
“50,” he says. 
“What does that mean?”  Is this good? Bad? Indifferent? What is it he’s looking for?  “Well.  The target is to blow over 200,” he said matter-of-factly and continued his exam, not sharing anything he was thinking even though he was clearly thinking a lot, judging from the furrowed brow now permanently affixed to his face. 
“What does that mean?” 
No answer. 
“Here. I want you to blow in this tube.” William blew into the tube and the doctor studied the computer screen attached to the tube. “Try again.  This time blow out harder.” William blew out again. “Hmm.” He wrinkled his brow further and looked at the screen a moment longer. Then he walked over to his desk against the wall and began to write. 
A couple of minutes passed. I thought to myself, “Is he going to say something?”   Information. Please. Would be nice. 

“Has he ever been diagnosed with asthma?” 
Asthma!?  Where is this coming from?!
“No,” I said. 
“Well, looking at these numbers and knowing his history with allergies, I think he most likely has asthma. I’d like to get a chest X-ray to confirm.” 
And then he stopped talking again. I mean truly and completely stopped talking. The words “Your child has asthma” were just left hanging in the air. All alone without any explanation or further information. Nothing. Just left hanging there to fend for themselves. 

“What does that mean?” I asked. He continued to write in the chart, back turned. 
“Mom, is it time to go yet?” William asked. Eventually the doctor turned, handed me a giant stack of prescriptions and left me with the direction to “Go to this website and look for information.”
And that was it. A stack of prescriptions for things I had never heard of, couldn’t pronounce and couldn’t understand – including an EpiPen. An EpiPen! What was I supposed to do with an EpiPen? And more importantly, why did he need one? 

This began our journey. Countless hours of research online and books checked out from the library later, we are getting a handle on this new normal.  

We’re on a journey
This began our journey. Countless hours of research online and books checked out from the library later, we are getting a handle on this new normal.  

No one in my very large family had asthma when we were growing up. No friends or relatives. No one. 

Asthma was the description you used to help describe someone who was a nerd, or couldn’t participate in sports, and that was all I thought of when I heard the word “asthma.” Now I was hearing the word used about my son, and panic began to strike. 

I am the mom to three boys. I’m used to bumps and bruises, sprains, cuts, trips to the emergency room -- and even firemen trekking up the stairs to our living room once to check William out after a sledding accident left him bleeding from his ear. I can handle most things. 

But breathing problems are something else. What am I supposed to do about my son’s breathing problem? If he can’t catch his breath, a special cream is not going to help. Rescue heroes aren’t going to help either if it takes them 10 minutes to get to my door.  What am I going to do? 

I’m going to do what anyone else would do. I’m going to learn everything I can about asthma, and we’re going to do everything we can to keep it in check.

Since his diagnosis, I have learned volumes about treating asthma, preventing episodes, watching for signs of an episode, monitoring and controlling what causes his symptoms. I’m becoming very close to our new doctor. I know we’ll have stumbles down the road – that’s life. 

But right now I have a child who is so much healthier than he was three months ago.  Symptoms he once exhibited that I didn’t even identify as symptoms – I’d thought they were just part of him – have gone away. He’s had his best summer yet. He finally learned to ride a bike – and competed in a kids’ triathlon a week later. Asthma hasn’t slowed him down at all.

I did wonder, after the triathlon ended, what would have happened if he’d had some kind of episode during the race and they couldn’t find me and didn’t know he had asthma. Next time, I think I need to look into getting him one of those medical bracelets or something. Until then, I continue to take along my new constant companion everywhere I go – his little red medicine bag.

Share your asthma and allergy journey -- e-mail your stories, tips and comments to, and I'll share them on this blog!