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Time to take asthma more seriously

Updated: January 8, 2012 1:15AM

Just reading the story about Aaron Pointer, the seven-year-old Matteson boy who died during an asthma attack last year while being shuffled between hospitals, was enough to bring back an old familiar tightness in my chest.

It’s the feeling that an asthma sufferer experiences when they’re trying to breathe but the oxygen isn’t getting through to the lungs.

You might have seen that ad at the bus stops with a young boy saying that when he has an asthma attack he feels like a fish trying to breathe out of water.

I’ve always thought that described it perfectly: capturing both the sense of helplessness and the growing desperation that occurs as one’s breathing spirals out of control.

Maybe the biggest difference is the fish knows he’ll be OK if he can get back in the water, while the person having an asthma attack isn’t always sure what he can do for relief.

For some reason, our society thinks it’s OK to make fun of asthma sufferers. People who use asthma inhalers are often the butt of jokes in movies and television, portrayed as wimpy neurotics.

While there obviously are people for whom the inhalers are a psychological crutch, asthma is very real and nothing to take lightly.

Aaron Pointer’s parents can attest to that, as could Rashidi Wheeler’s family a decade earlier. While it’s been that long since the Northwestern football player died from an asthma attack during practice, health officials estimate that more than 3,000 Americans die each year from asthma.

Asthma is a chronic inflammation of the airways. Various irritants can cause the lining of the airways to swell. The narrowed airways make it difficult to breathe.

If you’ve ever seen a child truly gulping for air, then you know it’s not a funny sight.

There’s a medical term called retracting.

When a child is having retractions, their skin goes taut around the ribs and neck until they have almost a skeletal quality, like a starving kid in Africa. When an asthma attack gets to that point, you’ve got a serious problem on your hands.

I’ve seen that appearance in a mirror many times when I was Aaron Pointer’s age, and I’ve seen it in a hospital emergency room late at night with my own children (because as every parent knows, these problems never seem to reach that stage during the doctor’s normal office hours.)

Lucky for me, those crises always had a happy ending. My own asthma is well under control with current medications, and my boys don’t seem to be having issues any more, knock on wood. I always played sports as a kid, as did they. I still do. You try to keep it from limiting your life.

Aaron Pointer’s death is now the subject of a lawsuit. His family is suing the three hospitals and medical personnel that treated him during an 11-hour period, transferring him from one to the next as his condition worsened. I’ll leave that for the lawyers to sort out.

All I want to do is get people to take asthma seriously.

“No child should die from asthma.”

I was already thinking that, but the person saying it was Michael Mark, vice president of the American Lung Association’s HELPLINE Services.

Mark, a nurse and respiratory therapist, wasn’t passing judgment on Aaron Pointer’s case, with which he was unfamiliar.

He was just saying that enough is known about asthma these days and enough effective treatment options are available that it shouldn’t ever reach that point.

“There are plenty of warning signs out there,” Mark said.

Yet an asthma attack doesn’t always follow a predictable path.

“You can get really bad in a big hurry,” Mark said. “There aren’t logical incremental steps.”

What we really need, Mark said, is for people to be better educated about asthma: their patients, their families, schools.

Patients and families need to be able to spot the “triggers” that can lead to an asthma episode. These can be anything from allergies to exercise to illness or stress.

They need to learn how to effectively use devices called peak-flow meters to measure their breathing capacity and spot an episode before it spirals out of control and into an emergency room visit.

School personnel need to be alert to the warning signs of asthma and how to handle a child in distress.

“There should not be a school in the country that does not have training for its teachers on these issues,” Mark said.

For those looking to get started, there’s the American Lung Association’s HELPLINE, 1-800-LUNG-USA.

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