Originally published at www.clairensaunders.com.
The first time a doctor told me I might have asthma and allergies, I was in middle school. It started as a cough and a feeling of being unable to empty the air from my lungs. My doctors back then thought it was triggered by the chemicals in my biology class (we had just started animal dissections). After a pulmonary function test and allergy skin prick test that didn’t suggest I had allergies or asthma, they gave me an albuterol inhaler and sent me on my way.
The next time the word allergies came up in one of my doctors appointments, I was working at a government lab in Long Island, NY. I was working very long hours for an uncompromising boss, so my health took a back seat. Over the course of several month, I became lethargic and started having issues with my ears. By the time I sought medical attention, I had a double ear infection and was lucky to have not done permanent damage to my hearing. The doctor at the urgent care suggested that it might be due to allergies, an immune condition, or just stress. This time I was given a prescription for antibiotics and told to return if it didn’t clear up.
In between these two events, I rarely used my inhaler. Usually I needed it after a particularly intense workout or if I was around strong chemicals or smoke. At this point I would not have even considered myself asthmatic.
After graduating from college, I moved from Pittsburgh, PA to Los Angeles, CA for graduate school at Caltech. Caltech is known for being a rigorous school and to say I was under a lot of stress is a bit of an understatement. During the first quarter, my breathing started to become a problem. I was tired all the time and started to notice wheezing when I did any physical exertion. During the second quarter, my breathing continued to slowly deteriorate. All of these breathing issues kept creeping up on me until the death of my best friend provided the stressor to make it all come crashing down.
Two months later, I had my first severe asthma attack. I spent a night in the Emergency Room receiving breathing treatments and IV fluids. After that night, I was referred to an Allergist/Immunologist who officially diagnosed me as asthmatic. A new skin prick test showed I still didn’t have any major allergies (only a small reaction to maple tree pollen). This time, I had inhalers and allergy medications to take every day. For the most part, this kept my symptoms under control. Between flare-ups that my doctor treated with oral steroids, I started competing in triathlons, marathons, gran fondos. Although my health lacked predictability, I honestly thought I had this “asthma thing” under control.
Then a few things happened. There was active construction near my apartment and office. Southern California endured 87 consecutive days of smog. I started having mysterious health issues that my doctors attributed to freaky autoimmune. It was a recipe for disaster. I ended up in the Emergency Room again for a severe asthma attack. The attack started 9 AM that morning and doctors finally got it under control by 6 PM that day. I was declared status asthmaticus and sent to the Respiratory Critical Care Unit (CCU). I avoided intubation, spent 1 day in the CCU and 2 days in the regular hospital. I was discharged with steroids and a plan to start biologic therapy.
I am still on daily inhalers and oral steroids, which I will hopefully be able to reduce if the biologic therapy works. I had to stop working out for awhile which has been the most difficult part for me. However, the most important thing for me now is to just keep breathin’ and breathin’ and breathin’ and breathin’.