[OPINION] An Essay on Asthma: Waiting to Exhale

– by Melissa Ham-Ellis


Graphic: drannemaitland.net

I was diagnosed with “adult onset asthma” when I was 36 years old. As a non-smoker, enrolled full-time in nursing curriculum, living in a rural area and, concurrently, teaching dance 2-3 times per week (getting adequate exercise,) I did not consider myself to be at risk for COPD. I thought that the likes of emphysema and chronic bronchitis were ailments prevented by abstinence: “how can this be?”

While the scale might tip back and forth as to whether it is more appropriate to refer to asthma as a syndrome or a disease, what seems to characterize asthma as COPD is the accompanying bronchoconstriction (airway narrowing), airway wall thickening, and increased mucus, all of which obstruct the airways and compromise breathing efficacy.

When we refer to asthmatics as having “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” asthma sounds much scarier, simply because we are using the dreaded “d” word itself. If you are not as confused as I am already…enter ACOS, or the Asthma COPD overlap. This brings us back to the root discussion of what it is that causes pulmonary disease, its mechanisms and, so…what IS asthma and why do I, along with 300 million people worldwide have it?

In 1993, the Global Initiative for Asthma, or GINA, was established in partnership with the World Health Organization, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, and National Institutes of Health USA to study the pathogenesis and increasing prevalence of asthma and to educate the public on asthma prevention and management. Big Picture: when we manage COPD, we manage a number of contributors that influence more than just COPD. GINA reports that asthma causes symptoms such as wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness and cough that vary over time in their occurrence, frequency and intensity. Asthma symptoms may be triggered or worsened by factors such as viral and bacterial infections (C pneumoniae being a common culprit), allergens, tobacco smoke, exercise and stress.

What does this have to do with Clean Energy?

Asthma is caused by oxidative stress. Rather, we could say that oxidative stress causes inflammatory diseases, asthma being among them.

“Stress,” when used generally, is a term that most of us are uncomfortably familiar with: “The office is really stressing me out,” or “I believe my chronic headaches to be stress induced,” or “stress is affecting the quality of my intimate relationships.”

Environmental and emotional stressors are often linked, and literally place a burden on our body systems. More specifically, our actual cells are stressed. There are byproducts and consequences resulting from experiencing stress. Some may argue that there is good stress and bad stress, but the effects are usually measurable in some manner. Think of Newton’s 3rd law of forces in pairs: every action expects an equal and/or opposite reaction.

In the case of asthma, it may also be referred to as an allergic disorder.

Removing the triggers might seem a logical defense against the onset of asthma flares, but how should we proceed if the triggers are stacked against us such that they have come to fall outside of the boundaries that logic once confined? We cannot all live in bubbles without any contact with other organisms. I would love to move to the wilderness with my family, but I do not foresee this occurring any time in the near future, even if the air were actually “cleaner” there.

Writing about having asthma is, of course, a coping mechanism; when paired with worldwide violence and recent attacks on democracy itself, it feels slightly self-indulgent. But, when we consider any assault on our airways and violence in a broader usage of the term, it is violence nonetheless. The way we are and the way we live are contributing to manifestations of ‘illness,” whether we are ready to own up to it or not.

There are lots of ways to “clear the air” of unkind words, unkind thoughts and the other more tangible assailants such as the reek of cheap perfume in the stairwell or the chain-smoker on the sidewalk, all of which are forms of terror to asthma sufferers. Placed in context, it is terrifying to be hospitalized for an asthma episode only to contract nosocomial Pneumonia, as so often is the case.

High capacity machine rifles and carbon emissions are no less scary than the Santa Ana winds to asthma sufferers everywhere: suffocating being a horrible way to die. Pneumonia seems equally formidable to armed opponents. Are Asthma and COPD not punishment enough for human-induced climate driving?

“How you gonna breathe with no air?” says Jordan Sparks, no pun intended. There are many, many ways to deprive a body of oxygen, metaphorically or otherwise.

Back to what I am able to do in my daily endeavors:

Since my insurance company refused to fill my prescription for a corticosteroid inhaler, (they tell me these inhalers no longer release CFCs into the atmosphere) I am currently managing my condition with diet, exercise and yoga. It would take me the next 30 minutes to look up the spelling and applications of the dozens of herbs that naturopaths and other alternative practitioners choose to lessen the effects of asthma; I must confess I have had the patience to try only a few, but I am still “managing,” and that is what I can do.

All that said: I do no actually think that you need an asthma diagnosis to experience the nauseating, chest tightening panic that ensues when you look around you and realize that someone has been hacking all of the trees to bits, literally cutting off your future life line, or to have the common sense to continue to be wary of guns and strangers.

Melissa Ham-Ellis is a dance educator residing in Vermont.

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