According to the CDC there are, more than 25 million people in the US who have asthma. Nearly eight percent of the population knows what it feels like to be unable to get enough air. And those of us with breathing disorders of one kind or another who have followed the Covid 19 story carefully are especially anxious because of how the virus seems particularly keen to rob one of their breath.
I have been asthmatic all of my life. As a young child, I had frequent attacks and numerous hospital stays. The medications at that time were limited and usually an attack meant cortisone and Epinephrine injections which themselves were by no means ideal with plenty of side effects. There were other drugs, some causing hallucinations, palpitations, and so on until the mid to late ‘50’s when inhalers became more widely available. I was tethered to mine and used it more frequently than the recommended every four hours, which left me feeling as if I wanted to jump out of my skin. But who cared, I could breathe! I had previously not thought much or talked about my asthma because it was all I ever knew for many years. When I finally gained access to an inhaler, it changed everything. It worked so well to open up my lungs and allowing me to breathe, each puff was like a miracle and I panicked whenever I realized I was without it. In the years that followed, medications evolved and brought my asthma under control. Like most people I could take breathing for granted unless it was somehow threatened.
However, as I have gotten older, a new phenomenon has emerged related to my asthma. A simple cold invariably moves to my chest quickly exacerbating my asthma. These episodes, I discovered, besides being uncomfortable were regressive visits to a childhood where my asthma was again out of control. Only now, I felt panicked because my new norm of breathing freely made me profoundly aware of what interruptions to my new norm were like. These episodes meant breathing became labored and moved high in my chest. One’s shoulders naturally move upward toward your ears in an attempt to facilitate easier breathing. You may get brief relief from couple of blasts from your inhaler, but relief was short-lived. The weeks that follow are cluttered with prednisone, inhalers, nebulizers and breathing hindered by wheezing, chest rattles, and unrelenting coughing.
This past January my wife and I moved to St. Louis where she has a great new job with Washington University. After being here for two weeks, the Corona Virus, of which we knew little, swept the nation and indeed the world. It became the news and took control of our lives; shutting restaurants, bars, and moved my wife to our home to spend her work days on Zoom. It has spurred searches for masks, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper, and sent online shopping through the roof. Life has changed for us all. Now I follow the virus closely, each day reading multiple accounts about how it robs so many of their capacity to breathe through what doctors describe as a ‘cytokine storm’ that sends one into Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) and, most often, one ends up on a ventilator or dies. It is a frightening prospect; the thought of getting this virus. And, it is something that remains in the front of my mind. I told my new physician I was sure it would kill me if, God forbid, I became infected, a rather dramatic and gloomy statement. But, I meant it. Just the other day I spoke with a woman twenty plus years my junior who shares asthma with symptoms similar to my own. She commented, “If I get it, I’m sure it would kill me”. Finally, one of my new neighbors with asthma said the very same thing- “if I get it, I’m sure it will kill me”. Curiously, we used the same words!
We are all very careful, washing hands, and sanitizing them with the few sample-sized bottles we have scraped together. I have a decent homemade mask my neighbor made which features a pocket into which I can insert a coffee filter or paper towel. It eases my anxiety marginally.
For millions of us, the pandemic has to do with breathing and how those of us who have struggled for breath cannot take breathing for granted when losing the capacity for breath in just a matter of hours is a hallmark of this virus.
I generally don’t think of myself as old or a member of a, so-called, vulnerable population, but I have been deceiving myself. “It is what it is”, I tell myself. To my friends who are frustrated and angry with the slow pace of reopening the economy, I get it. But, do take heed, especially if you are a member of a vulnerable population which more and more of us are. As has been said many times during this pandemic, “We are all in this together” But we are all in this together in different ways. Someone who fears losing their job may have a slightly different interest than another who may fear losing their life. How we ensure it is not jobs versus a deadly virus, but mitigation and careful reopening of the economy is essential. Keeping people well and restoring the economy need not be incompatible in spite of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick of Texas’ ridiculous remarks about giving one’s life for the economy. And the leaders who are embracing Trump’s Liberate the People mantra by opening massage and tattoo parlors are gambling that we really are not nearly as vulnerable as the “lamestream media” has led us to believe. But, after 45,000 deaths in a matter of weeks our extreme vulnerability surely is becoming more difficult to deny, isn’t??
David L Heaney