Imagine you are 6 years old, excited about everything, full of life, constantly in motion. Now put yourself in one of those play places you might find at child-friendly restaurants. Your 6-year-old self is literally bouncing off the walls, sprinting from that giant ball pit to a huge spiraling slide, crawling as fast as you possibly can through those bright orange tunnels. You know the ones — they snake around corners, looping around and around until you have no idea where you are or where you started. But that's all part of the fun, right?
As you scramble along, the air gets thicker and heavier, your chest grows tight and starts to heave, you feel as if you are suddenly forced to breathe through a pinched straw. You stumble, now gasping like a fish out of water, the orange walls are blurry and growing steadily darker. All you want is to breathe, just to fill your lungs with fresh clean air, but your vision only grows more bleary as you feel a giant weight bearing down on your chest. You lie there, head spinning, mouth gaping, begging for breath, until at last it comes. Soon, your vision clears and you no longer feel so dizzy. You pick yourself up, and make your way out of the neon labyrinth.
This is how I remember my very first asthma attack, only I had no idea what was going on at the time. As a little kid you are always trying to keep up with everyone around you, so it's fairly common to be out of breath. For this reason, I never really recognized my asthma until I started taking swimming lessons twice a week. I complained to my instructor that the water was pushing on my chest or that my bathing suit was too tight. My complaints were dismissed; people just thought I was whining. What everyone failed to realize was that I was suffering from symptoms of asthma.
Scoring a Diagnosis
I was eventually diagnosed with allergies and was treated weekly with allergy shots. Around this time, I started to play competitive soccer and my breathing problems resurfaced. But this time they were much more intense.
On any sports team, every individual is expected to play his or her hardest. Every time I stepped onto the playing field, I was there to do my best. It didn't matter if I was the best player or the very worst; I just wanted to play the game. I started to suffer from breathing problems again, and to be honest, they gave me a feeling of inferiority, of weakness, so I tried to play through them.
Unfortunately, this led to several attacks that were a bit more severe than the ones I endured in swimming. Obviously, something was wrong. I was fit and relatively athletic, but still having difficulty breathing.
Since I had been diagnosed with allergies my parents consulted our family physician, who came to the conclusion that I was suffering from sports-induced asthma. My doctor prescribed a fast-acting inhaler that stabilized my asthma.
For several years after that, everything seemed great. I had the occasional flare-up, but with my inhaler I was able to manage my asthma reasonably well. That is, until the middle of freshman year when I contracted the flu. [Often, someone with asthma who catches the flu may notice increased asthma symptoms, even after the temporary illness has long since passed.]
Running Out of Breath
From this point on, my occasional asthma attacks at soccer grew much more frequent and severe. Instead of just losing my breath or experiencing mild wheezing, I had a loud, choking-like wheeze. I was on the border of passing out many times. Still, I didn't want to be weak. I wanted to show I could endure anything. So I insisted that everything was OK, that I didn't need to see a doctor, that it was just a little cold, anything I could think of.
I started to suffer from a chronic cough, a wheezy, dry cough that just wouldn't go away. Finally, my parents insisted I see a doctor. This time my physician gave me a daily pill I would take to help prevent my asthma symptoms. In addition to that, I would take my fast-acting inhaler every 4 to 6 hours until the cough subsided.
This seemed to work OK until a month later. I had a reaction to someone's perfume in French class. Coming into contact with things like strong perfume, the dander on pets, or pollen in the air can trigger a reaction in some people with asthma. Cigarette smoke is especially terrible for me — one whiff and I start coughing up a storm.
In this case, the perfume triggered my asthma and I started coughing and wheezing uncontrollably. My French teacher was trying to explain the imperfect tense of verbs as my vision blurred and the room started to spin. Next thing I knew, I was being hauled out on a stretcher and into an ambulance.
I have never been so frightened in my life. I don't even remember a lot of what happened because I kept coming in and out of consciousness. I remember lying on the floor, I remember someone asking me where my inhaler was, and I remember a teacher telling me, "It's all going to be all right, it's going to be just fine, just breathe." It wasn't until I was in the ambulance that I really came out of my baffled state and my breathing stabilized.
Once I got to the hospital I was put on a nebulizer, which is a device used to change liquid medication into something a person can breathe. It consists of a mouthpiece, tubing, and the compressor (which changes the state of the medication from liquid to vapor). After being released with a referral to see my usual physician, I made my way home.
Friends Make the Difference
After leaving the hospital, I turned on my cell phone to see I had three new voicemails and several missed calls. Within a few minutes my phone started to ring, over the next half hour I received calls from all of my closest friends, each one checking and double-checking and triple-checking that I was OK. Despite having just suffered one of the most frightening attacks I have ever experienced, I was reassured knowing I had such supportive and caring friends.
When I returned to school, most people knew about what happened and wanted to hear me tell the story. Even people I didn't really know would come and ask, "Hey, are you that girl they took out on a stretcher? Seriously? What happened?" I didn't mind, it's natural for people to be curious. Usually people just responded with an awed voice and "Wow." Though freaked out, most of my friends understood what happened and wanted to make sure it didn't happen again. I am lucky to have the friends that I do, who are attentive and always ready to help.
Now, in addition to the fast-acting inhaler I've always used, I take another inhaler every day as a preventive medication, along with my daily pill. Before I play sports, during an attack, or if I have a wheezing cough, I take the fast-acting inhaler. To be honest I am not too fond of that fast-acting inhaler — it makes me jittery and shaky and hyper. But I do what I need to do in order to stay as healthy as I can.
Some days are just bad days. In the summer, if it is ridiculously hot and humid, I have more trouble than usual. The same thing happens in the winter when it is one of those excessively dry, cold, and windy days. On these days I just have to work a little harder and maybe take my fast-acting inhaler more often. Whenever I feel that wheeze, that tight feeling in my chest, I just take that inhaler.
Playing for Keeps
I think that playing sports has really helped me with my asthma. Playing a sport increases your lung capacity, and physical fitness is incredibly important to a person with asthma. Being in good physical condition means my "comfort zone" of activity is higher than if I didn't play a sport of any kind. Because of this, I can reach a higher level of activity without suffering asthma symptoms.
Within the last year I started running track as an in-between sport for soccer to keep in shape and get some good exercise. I never would have guessed that I would fall in love with the sport so quickly. This past fall I switched from soccer to cross-country for the first time, where I found it was much easier to control my asthma.
As opposed to soccer, which consists of a start-stop, start-stop style of running, in long distance running I can pace myself and maintain a stable breathing pattern until the very end, where I sprint with everything I have left. Each time I work through it with all of my willpower. My coaches are unbelievably supportive. They are the kind of people you want to make proud, that you never want to disappoint. They are always attentive to each member of our team, myself included.
As much as I love running, it gets frustrating sometimes. Days when I want to run more, I want to run faster, but I just can't breathe are the worst. But I work through them to the best of my ability. Sometimes it feels like every time I run it's a struggle between me and my breath. That last stretch is always the most grueling part of the race and the hardest test of my asthma. I just focus on that finish line and sprint with every fiber of my being, knowing that the end is just a few more strides away.
The burst of exhilaration and pride that fills me when I cross that line is almost indescribable. It surpasses anything I have ever experienced in soccer; I guess it must be what some call a "runner's high." This experience, asthma, running, everything, has taught me what it means to want something and to work for it, using every possible resource to get to where I need to be. I know now that what I once thought was a weakness has made me stronger, and knowing this has made all of the trials and tests worth it.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: January 2013