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Using an Asthma Inhaler
Using an Asthma Inhaler

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Parenting: Growing in Good Health

Blow the House Down: Asthma in the Family

By Elissa Sonnenberg

Nicholas' first bout with asthma took us by surprise. I had convinced myself that Nicholas had his father's healthy lungs, not the weak ones that had left me asthmatic through much of my youth.

As a parent, I've learned that even the smallest sound in the middle of the night can jettison me from deep sleep to adrenaline-filled action. I'll never forget the first time I heard my two-year-old wheeze. Through the static of the baby monitor, his low rasps quickly accelerated into deep, thick coughs and shallow breaths, frightening sounds that brought back painful memories of my own childhood.

Nicholas' first bout with asthma took us by surprise. I had convinced myself that Nicholas had his father's healthy lungs, not the weak ones that had left me asthmatic through much of my youth. Surely my oldest boy, with his tall, stocky build and crystal blue eyes, was destined for more than sitting breathless on the sidelines during kickball games and sifting through piles of homework after weeks missed from school.

With questions and guilt swirling through my head, my only clear thought was to call the doctor, who recommended we bring Nicholas in to the office the next morning. Between crying and wheezing, Nicholas might have managed another hour of sleep that night. We beat the staff to the office by at least a half-hour. Big coughs still racked his body. His breathing was labored. When the doctor heard Nicholas try to inhale and exhale, he was noticeably alarmed, and told us he had sent children in better shape to the hospital.

We then set out on a road that I knew all too well. Our hands full of prescriptions, we spent the next four hours tracking down a nebulizer, a breathing machine through which Nicholas could inhale the liquid medicine that would open his breathing passages.

Life with "Buzz"

At home with this odd, beige box — complete with clear, snaky tubes — we settled Nicholas down for his first dose. We strapped the small mask over his mouth and nose. We hid our own fears and called him Buzz Lightyear, playing on his admiration of the self-assured space ranger in Toy Story. After several asthma attacks, Nicholas came to regard his sessions as his special "space man" times, when he could listen to quiet stories and cuddle with Mom or Dad.

Once Nicholas had a friend over for a play date shortly after recovering from a cold and an asthma episode. He still needed treatments, so in the middle of their visit, he had to sit down and put on his mask. His friend was enthralled, and wanted me to let him try on the mask. So much for my concerns about Nicholas being viewed as a weakly outcast.

But it wasn't always smooth sailing.

When Nicholas had the flu, breathing treatments helped him for only an hour or so before the wheezing coughs returned. Like me, he eventually needed steroids, nasty-tasting clear liquid that Nicholas had to take, often in the middle of the night, to quell his coughs. The hyperactivity caused by the breathing treatments was hard enough — steroids only intensified it. The normal exuberance of a preschooler seemed tame compared to the whirlwind of destruction Nicholas became when asthma medicines raced through his body.

Lessons learned

Watching your child through illness, especially chronic illness, is never easy. Seeing your own weaknesses reflected in your child’s innocent eyes only intensifies the pain. To this day, his every cough makes my chest ache; after every sleepless night the dark circles under his eyes mirror my own.

Despite hardships, Nicholas' stamina has taught me an important lesson about adapting and ability. Never once has he complained about his breathing treatments. Before he developed asthma, he would sometimes stubbornly refuse to take medicines. Now he accepts them with a startling maturity. He doesn't even revolt on the few days when he has to stay inside during playground time at school — he plays with friends or works on favorite lessons of his own

Great strides

Today, with the help of Nicholas' allergist, we try to keep his treatments and diagnoses kid-friendly. He loves checking his progress at the specialist's office, where he plays the Big Bad Wolf in a computer simulation — while he tries to blow down all three pigs' houses with one breath, a program measures his ever-growing lung capacity.

At nearly five years old, Nicholas enjoys measuring his own peak airflow every day, and even learned to count into the hundreds by watching the peak-flow monitor's gauge carefully. With continued diligence, I believe he is much further on the road to outgrowing his symptoms than I was at his age. For me, Kindergarten was the first of long years of sickness, days spent at home and friendships interrupted. For Nicholas, who has been symptom-free all year, Kindergarten holds the promise of better health.

In Nicholas' world, life is always full of new surprises, like nebulizers and Pokemon, chewable medicines and Power Rangers. And I can breathe a little easier as I watch him take each new day, and each new challenge, right in stride.

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