It’s the same dream every time. I’m coughing and choking. I’m gasping for air. I can’t breathe and I call for help. I frantically look around and notice that there’s water everywhere. That’s when I realize that I’m going to drown. I cough and gasp and fight and it never helps. The dream goes on forever. The good thing is I’m never in the same place. Sometimes I’m in the lake that I swam in every summer at camp. Other times it’s the heavily chlorinated pool from high school. Many times it’s a river. Regardless of the locale, it always ends the same. I wake up dripping from head to toe. Coughing uncontrollably as I choke back the tears.
I have asthma which shocks most people. Since I play tennis a few times a week and look completely healthy, I’ve baffled the minds of many when I tell them how serious it is. I didn’t discover myself out of breath in middle school gym class and need a puff of an inhaler one day. Born with it, I’d turn blue as a baby. Combine that with the fact that I am allergic to the majority of the outside world and it makes for a pretty nasty duo. Thankfully, both are controlled by the miracles of science and I have a rich, full life.
Over 22 million Americans have some form of asthma and the numbers are steadily increasing. Twenty five per cent of underprivileged children have been diagnosed with this chronic illness. Medical science has looked for years to find a cure for this often debilitating condition. Generally, it’s caused by outside irritants, allergies or exercise. It’s often hereditary. And, it can be fatal.
In my case, we have no idea how I won the asthma lottery. There was no family history of asthma or any other lung condition. My parents both have mild seasonal allergies, but nothing serious. My mom smoked when she was pregnant, but it was the sixties and so did everyone else. We’ve never found a connection.
As a baby, I was allergic to most foods and they were quickly eliminated from my diet. As a young child, I was tested and we discovered that I’m allergic to most grasses, trees, pollens, animals and dust mites. I was quickly started on shots and our home allergy-proofed. Somewhere along the way, it was also confirmed that most things that could save me, may kill me as well. Out the door went penicillin, cephalosporin’s, sulfa drugs, aspirin and adhesive (A simple band aid can leave me with a rash for weeks). I’m also sensitive to many of the ingredients in cough medicine. And, I can’t get stung by a bee.
Despite all that, I led a pretty normal life. I consistently went to the city track meet for the 50 yard dash. I was able to dance and cheer and sing in choir. I played some tennis and swam and lived like a normal kid. All thanks to the University of Iowa Allergy Department where my medications and shots were coordinated.
In my mid twenties, I went off some of my medications with success. Finally, I was going to get a shot at a more drug free life. It went so well that in my early thirties, I decided to try for something that I never thought I would have; a baby. It took us three years of planning to conceive. The first year, I had weekly allergy shots in the hopes that I could stop some of my category three medications. The next year, we tried in fits and spurts. Every time I’d go off medication, we’d get about a six-week window where I’d stay healthy. Then we’d have to stop trying as I’d have to start my medication once again. The start of the third year, we quit trying and wound up conceiving. My body took care of itself during the pregnancy. It was a miracle.
Not wanting my child to have my ailments, I wanted to breast feed. Worked for a while in the winter, but come spring my allergist sat me down for an intervention. I’d been having some fairly serious problems and I was told that I would have to stop breast feeding. There was a chance that I could die if I didn’t start taking my regular medications again and I needed a dose of steroids. I was heartbroken.
I’m not an asthmatic that wheezes. I have the type of asthma that feels like a large sumo wrestler has grabbed me around my rib cage and won’t let go. My symptoms also get worse at night. At that time, my asthma was so out of control that I never slept. Propped up on pillows, night after night, I’d cough so hard that I’d gag. I’d choke. And it would go on all night. It was about that time that the dreams started.
I spent the next five years trying to find the right medications and hoping that my body would go back to the way it was pre-pregnancy. Every three months like clockwork, I was back in the office for pulmonary function tests and put on prednisone. My weight ballooned. I spent countless nights awake. I had two sinus surgeries, pneumonia and hundreds of allergy shots. Nothing worked. It got so bad that twice when I walked in to the doctor’s office for sick hours, they told my insurance company that I would have been in the hospital. That’s when I got a break.
I was approved for drug called Xolair. Given by injection every two weeks, the medication is an immunoglobin that works on the part of the immune system (igE) that causes allergic asthma. It has been my salvation. I haven’t had to take any steroids.
Through a daily cocktail of six medications plus five shots every two weeks, I function like every other forty year-old woman. I have a life.
Until I get sick. At least three times a year, I’m reminded that I’m not like everyone else. I’ll catch a virus. Wind up on antibiotics for a sinus or upper respiratory infection and within days my lung function’s down in the eighties and I’m fighting for oxygen. That’s when the dream returns.
On a night where I lie awake in bed for hours, watching the clock as I cough. Tossing and turning. To try to get some relief, I’ll stumble downstairs for a breathing treatment. Then return, prop myself up on pillows and try to sleep. Sometimes I cough so hard I trigger my gag reflex, which starts it all over again. Sometime around four or five o’clock, I’ll fall asleep for an hour. That’s when I have the dream. That’s what happened last night.
I’m coughing and choking. I’m gasping for air. I can’t breathe and I call for help. I frantically look around and notice that there’s water everywhere. This time, I’m in a river and it’s moving quickly. There’s someone to my right, but I can’t see their face. We approach a waterfall and descend. I’m scared. My heart’s racing. I surface, coughing frantically and look around. I am all alone. I reach out my hand for help and find the side of the raft. Miraculously, I climb in. I wake up coughing uncontrollably. I replay the dream back in my mind and begin to sob. This time the dream was different. I didn’t drown. This time I find help and I live.
This post was originally written in 2009 for the Kansas City Star's parenting site. Still, everything remains the same.