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Take a Deep Breath

“Is it polio?” my mother asked, her voice quavering. Doctors made home visits in the 1940’s, and the Dr. continued to listen to my heaving chest as I lay on my parents’ bed. I was three years old.

The doctor stood and folded his stethoscope. “Now, Nancy, why did you scare your parents that way? You don’t have polio. You have asthma.”

Well, my parents were relieved but not surprised. My father “outgrew” his asthma at 12 years old, according to the family lore, but he was still allergic to most animals and both my parents had seasonal hay fever.

In addition, both my parents smoked, which was almost a requirement in the 1940’s. My parents asked if their cigarette smoke bothered me, and I always chirped, “Oh, no,” because I didn’t want them to be annoyed and have to extinguish their cigarette. Often at night I heard wheezing in my chest, and I made a game of it. I took shorter or longer breaths to vary the sounds, and imagined the wheezes were conversations. Inhale: “Do you want to play?” Exhale: “Yes, let’s play Ginny dolls.”

In second grade, my mother sent some tablets to school in a white envelope. On the envelope, she wrote instructions to my teacher: “If Nancy gets ‘wheezy,’ she can have ¼ of one Tedral pill.” Of course, the day came when I wheezed after recess and the teacher made the mistake of giving me the whole tablet. Dizzy and shaky, I threw up all over my desk. I was too sick to be embarrassed and my mother had to take me home. I missed a lot of school in those years.

Although my dad outgrew asthma at around age 12, puberty had the opposite effect on me. My asthma worsened with female hormones. I remember really struggling to take in air. Those TV commercials showing an elephant on your chest are pretty accurate. When I was 14 years old, an allergist tested my allergic reaction to various substances, and I reacted strongly to trees, grasses, molds, dust mites, cat dander, rabbits, horses, and ragweed. The doctor recommended allergy shots, to build up my immunity over a period of time.

We lived in South America for three years, so every few months the allergist mailed the little vials of serum to us through the “diplomatic pouch” of the U.S. Embassy. The colorful little bottles with black lids sat inside our refrigerator door, until I took them to the local “farmacia,” or pharmacy. There, the balding pharmacist with the thin, black mustache kept the vials in their refrigerator, and gave me my injections once a week. He always smiled and took care not to hurt me.

During those years, I also had a “nebulizer,” to relieve acute asthma attacks. The nebulizer had a glass bowl, into which we added drops of a mysterious clear medication that turned brown after exposure to the air. A rubber tube attached the glass bowl to a rubber bulb. On the other side of the bowl, there was a glass opening that I would put in my mouth, squeezing the bulb on the opposite end, and forcing a vapor into my lungs. It wasn’t very portable, so I didn’t take it to school. If really in distress, I could take ½ of a Tedral pill, which always stopped the wheezing but still had unpleasant side effects.

Sometimes, if I was wheezing at school, I would call home from the school office and tell my mother to get ready for me. There were no cell phones. I walked the mile home feeling more and more panicked, until I saw the little table in our living room, ready with my nebulizer and a cup of hot tea with honey. It was such a relief to be able to breathe again.

While in college, I visited my Aunt Carol and Uncle Bruce for ten days. I had not factored “Bartok,” the family black cat, into my vacation plans. Day by day, my asthma worsened and I overmedicated myself with inhalants and Tedral. When I was hunched over gasping for breath and could not climb the stairs to the guest room, we drove to the emergency room. Even adrenaline did not help me breathe. I couldn’t inhale oxygen through a mask. There was a blue tinge around my fingernails. “This must be what it feels like to suffocate,” I thought. Finally, I was given an injection of aminophylline, a bronchodilator. I will always remember the relief. That was just the beginning, though.

My lungs were full of infection. I stayed in the hospital for another ten days, with a jar next to my bed labeled “spit here.” The doctors made their rounds every day and looked into the jar approvingly, inspecting all the yellow, green, and yucky mucous I spat out of my lungs.

In the 1970’s, my husband couldn’t understand why his gift box of Estee Lauder talcum powder sat barely used in the bathroom. The loose powder aggravated my lungs and the fragrance triggered wheezing. Another time he gave me a beautiful mohair beret with a matching mohair scarf. Mohair comes from an angora goat. I hadn’t specifically been tested for goat allergy, but the odds were against me. The long mohair fibers at my neck also tickled my nose like a feather and made me sneeze. He felt hurt because I seldom wore his gift.

After an episode where I wound up in the emergency room, my husband commented wryly, “If you had been a pioneer woman you would have been a cross by the side of the road.” He was not impressed with my hardiness. I felt ashamed and inadequate, inferior to my normal, healthy friends who did not make trips to the emergency room.

But something happened. By the mid 1980’s I was past 40 years old and my asthma was better controlled. There were new preventative type inhalers available, and my hormone levels decreased. I knew my triggers and avoided scented candles, cold air, wood smoke, feathers, animals, and leaf mold.

As the century turned and I entered my 60’s I made a surprising discovery….I could actually sing an entire phrase. For the first time in my life, I joined two chorus groups.

I’m in my seventies now and feel amazed to have had such a long and healthy life….asthma has been a companion, but hasn’t ruled my life. I don’t run, but I can walk. I sing. I am thankful.

How about you? Have you learned to live, or even thrive, with a lifelong impediment?

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