DENVER -- Sixth-grader A.J. O’Neill’s favorite thing about school is flag football. When pressed, he says he likes learning about the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas in social studies, too. A.J., who’s had asthma since he was a baby, also learns about treating and preventing the lung disease at school.
The first asthma attack he remembers—he was only 3 at the time—was so bad he landed in the hospital. “I was in a hospital bed taking my medicines and trying to breathe,” he recalls. “I felt lousy. I had all these tubes hooked up to me.”
The asthma attack A.J. doesn’t recall almost killed him when he was only 18 months old. A.J.’s parents say it lasted 33 days. “I nearly died,” he says with a calm that only comes from living for years with a chronic disease. “My parents were worried.”
Like A.J., many children with chronic, severe asthma can name dozens of asthma medications with the ease of a well-trained physician, can recall days and nights spent in the emergency room and even the times that their parents thought they would die. In 1997, asthma killed 154 children between 1-14 years old in the United States, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
The lung disease accounted for more than 1.2 million missed school days in 1998 and 214,000 hospital in stays 1997 for children 15 years and younger, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute and National Center for Health Statistics, respectively.
Fortunately, A.J. attends the Kunsberg School for children with severe asthma and other chronic illnesses at National Jewish Medical and Research Center. The asthma management techniques the children learn here help them and their parents control the disease, which is caused by constriction of the airways and characterized by wheezing,coughing and labored breathing.
Recently, a few of the school’s 100 students came together to convey their stories and tell other children with asthma—there are about 5 million in the United States today—the best ways a kid can battle the disease.
Don’t Hide It
“Other kids are curious about asthma,” A.J. says. “Once they know me, they say, ‘It’s kind of neat that you can run and not have to sit out.’”
The teachers and nurses at Kunsberg encourage all the kindergarten through eighth-graders to be active in sports as long as they pretreat with medication beforehand. A.J. likes to swim, a regular activity at the school, which has an indoor pool. The moisture of the pool opens the airways of children with asthma.
“Don’t be stupid about your asthma,” A.J. advises kids. “One time I was going to my friend’s house. I was so excited because we were going to a swim party. I was jumping up and down, acting crazy. It was really hot. I started wheezing. But I still got to go because I settled down.”
Sky Gardipe, a seventh grader, likes to swim and play flag football. Math is his favorite subject. “The first time I meet people, they ask questions when I take out my inhaler,” he says. “After a while, I got used to this happening. Now I just explain that I have asthma. Mostly, people are just curious.”
After a couple of bad experiences, he’s learned to watch himself. “The worst thing is when you have to go to the hospital,” he says. “That’s what happened to me when I was running around outside, playing with a friend and I didn’t take my medicines. We went in his house and his cat triggered my asthma. I had a really bad attack. Now I know if I don’t do what I’m supposed to, I’ll have an attack and it’s no fun, believe me.”
Harold Mortis is a fourth grader who recently enrolled at the school. At his first school, kids made fun of him because he couldn’t run very far. “I told them it was because I had asthma,” Harold says, “and when they asked what asthma was, I said I didn’t know. My mom had just told me when I was five that I’d had it since I was a baby. But I didn’t really understand it.”
At Kunsberg, along with the rigorous academic curriculum, children learn all about their illnesses and how to manage them.
Like most kids with severe asthma, Harold remembers a scary experience. “One time I had a bad asthma attack. My mom had to rush me to the hospital. I couldn’t make it all the way. I had to hold my head out the car window. My mom took me to the police station close by and they got an ambulance.”
With the help and encouragement of the teachers and nurses at Kunsberg School, the children can be regular kids. “I wanted to play football this year but my mom wouldn’t let me,” Harold says. “She says now that I’m taking care of my asthma, I might get to play next year.”
Ten Top Tips from These Kunsberg School Experts:
- If you feel wheezy, go to a grownup. If you have your medication, take it.
- If you don’t take your medications, you’ll be wheezing a lot more and things like cat hair can trigger an attack.
- Know how and when to take your medications. Read the directions on the package or ask a grown up.
- If you use your inhalers but they don’t help, sip a cup of warm water. Drink it slowly, sit down and concentrate on your breathing. This will relax you.
- If you use your inhalers but they don’t help, get a cup of hot water and wet a wash cloth. Put the wash cloth half over the cup and over your nose and mouth and breathe. Slow down!
- Take a peak flow if you’re running around, like in sports. If the peak flow shows green, you’re OK. If it’s yellow, take it easy. If it’s red, sit down. Take your inhalers right away.
- Be glad that you’re still alive. You’ve had bad asthma attacks before and didn’t die.
- If you take care of your asthma really well, you’ll have a lot fewer symptoms.
- After treatment, just ignore it and act like a normal kid.
- Take it as a part of life, a part of who you are.
The Number 1 Respiratory Hospital in the U.S. for Two Consecutive Years, U.S. News & World Report, 1998-2000.
The above story is based on materials provided by National Jewish Medical And Research Center. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
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