Mia’s Story: Living with Asthma During COVID-19

Mia during our 2019 State Lung Health Education Day, an opportunity for advocates to speak to lawmakers about clean air and lung health issues in Illinois.

Mia Fritsch-Anderson, 15, is a freshman at Whitney Young High School in Chicago. She began working with Respiratory Health Association at the age of five after being diagnosed with asthma. She regularly participates in lung health education and advocacy activities in her community and throughout the Chicago area, and won RHA’s Next Generation Advocate award in 2019 for her work.

Growing up with asthma has always involved extra caution and safety measures for me, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, my lung health is constantly on my mind. When the coronavirus first started showing up in the news, I immediately clued in on the extra warnings for people with lung disease. People like me with moderate to severe asthma are at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19. Because of this, my family and I have taken the stay at home order very seriously. I have not gone inside any restaurant or business, or hung out with any of my friends, since my last day of school on March 16. It’s especially hard to see my peers on social media going over to a friend’s house “just for a little while,” but I can’t take that risk right now.

In a way, I think living with a chronic lung disease made it a little easier for my family and I to adjust to all the safety recommendations. Many of them we already followed daily. Because a simple cold so easily progresses to pneumonia for me (at least twice a year), my family and I have always been especially careful about hand washing and have always used disposable paper towels in the bathroom. To avoid tracking germs all over the house, we have always been a “no shoes inside” family. We’ve always worked with my doctors and pharmacists to make sure I have enough of all my daily and rescue medications at home.

Since a major symptom of COVID-19 is not being able to breathe, any shortness of breath or tightness in my chest, no matter how small, has me wondering all the time if now I’m sick. And as an asthmatic, I’m already extra vigilant about how my breathing sounds, so I’m constantly worried that I’ve caught the virus. Before coronavirus, it wouldn’t phase me at all. I’d just think I needed some extra albuterol, grab my inhaler, and carry on. I’m sure every kid and teen with asthma has the same thoughts right now.

Asthma has also helped me better understand the general public’s fears around the coronavirus, like having trouble breathing, since I’ve been dealing with it all for 15 years. Recently, a family shared with me how scared their little girls were to wear face masks, because they are different and “it feels weird.” I could instantly relate to that as a lifelong nebulizer user and was able to give them tips to help them feel more comfortable. I think those of us together in this “lung disease” club are in a unique position to help others with the challenges that come from fear around breathing symptoms.

I think a lot of kids and teens, healthy or otherwise, feel helpless right now. Since I have lung disease, I can’t get out on the front line and help in ways I’ve seen others give back, like volunteering at the food pantry or shopping for neighbors. One thing I’ve been doing that helps me give back, and alleviates that “helpless” feeling, is using my knack for sewing to donate hand sewn masks to essential workers. So far, I have sewn 500 masks to donate to all sorts of workers in my community, including pharmacists, broadcast journalists, grocery store workers, day care workers, nurses, and therapists.

If you want to make face masks for yourself or others, I put together a video of how you can do it in your own home with items you may already have on hand.

To learn more about living with asthma during COVID-19, there are several resources from RHA including tips for managing your asthma. If you are interested in joining me as a lung health advocate, click here!

Jen Runs to Be Part of Something Powerful

Written by Amanda Sabino

Jen Dorval admits her running background is not the most extensive. But for Jen, running with Respiratory Health Association’s Lung Power Team in the Chicago Marathon is about more than just the race. It’s to honor her sister, Dee, who passed away four years ago due to chronic asthma.

two young sisters sit next to each other

Dee (left) and Jen

“Her goal was to run a 5k,” Jen says. “That was so sad to me because all she wanted was to run three miles…that is what kick-started me into running. If I can run a marathon for her, I’m going to do it.”

Growing up in Massachusetts, the fun-loving and outgoing sisters had many similarities – including living with asthma. Jen’s case was mild, but Dee’s caused her to miss school and visit the hospital frequently. That didn’t stop her from making an impression on everyone. She was particularly talented in the sciences, and when Jen encountered her older sister’s teachers years later, they all had a clear memory of her.

“She was in your face and did not care,” Jen says while laughing. “She had no filter whatsoever. If she were thinking it, it would come right out of her mouth!”

The sisters were both skilled swimmers, but Dee’s asthma eventually prevented her from continuing with the sport. She was fortunate the hospital was close to both home and school, which allowed her to quickly get care during frequent asthma episodes. The family still hoped that newer procedures would allow Dee to manage her asthma at home more often.

Dee and Jen with their mom

As this became more difficult, and the list of the activities she could no longer participate in grew longer, she considered a bronchial thermoplasty – an asthma treatment that heats and reduces the amount of smooth muscle in your airway wall. As a result, the immune system no longer tells the throat to constrict when triggered, making it easier to breathe. Unfortunately, due to her health, Dee was not a candidate for the procedure.

High-spirited and persistent despite this setback, Dee shifted her goals to new destinations. During Jen’s senior year in high school, Dee moved to sunny Florida. She felt that the milder climate would make it easier to manage her asthma triggers. Not only did her grandparents live there, but she met her fiancé and had her daughter Olivia, who she called Liv. Dee’s pregnancy was high-risk, and during the birth Liv suffered a stroke –which resulted in cerebral palsy that affected the left side of her body.

“Dee was a tireless advocate for Liv and made sure she got all of the therapies she needed,” Jen remembers. “She would have that girl in therapy all day to make sure she got the best care.”

As Dee settled into Florida life with her fiancé and daughter, her breathing struggles continued. Her oxygen levels were frequently low. Any time her levels were close to average, she would jokingly tell her sister how well she could breathe. Though they kept their conversations lighthearted, it illuminated a constant that had followed Dee throughout her life – she was not getting the oxygen needed to live comfortably.

On December 23, 2016, Dee woke up in the middle of the night struggling to breathe. Knowing she was in the middle of an asthma episode, her fiancé called the ambulance.

Jen and Liv

The resulting brain damage was too much for her to overcome, and she passed on Christmas Eve. Her family returned to Massachusetts – her final resting place – for a celebration of life. Loved ones drove through a giant snowstorm to attend the funeral – and Jen reflects a mischievous Dee would have enjoyed putting them through one last challenge.

“So many people like me, and they all drove through the snow for this?” she imagines Dee saying cheerfully.

Dee’s memory lives on in her daughter and family members like Jen, who carry her spirit and energy. Olivia also lives with asthma, and together with Jen, they run for a better future—one where even those living with the most severe cases of asthma can receive the care necessary to improve quality of life. To help support research, education and advocacy around asthma and other lung diseases, contribute to Jen’s Lung Power Team campaign.

Protect Your Lungs While Staying Home During COVID-19

As people spend more time inside during the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s important to recognize and reduce sources of pollution in your own home. Indoor air quality varies, but is often worse than outdoor air quality. However, you can improve the air quality in your home by reducing lung irritants generated indoors. Following some basic guidelines in your day-to-day routines can improve the health of those in your home who live with asthma and other lung diseases.

Cooking

gas stove can worsen indoor air quality

Gas stoves can increase indoor air pollution in your home if not properly ventilated.

People are cooking at home more often during the COVID-19 outbreak. Cooking creates moisture, which feeds mold and mildew growth – a common trigger for those living with asthma. It also exposes you to pollutants like nitrogen dioxide, particularly from gas stoves. Nitrogen dioxide is known to worsen asthma and COPD symptoms. Using a stove fan that vents to the outside can reduce pollution from cooking by 75 percent. Opening windows while cooking can also help keep the air in your home clean.

Bathing/Showering

With people home more often, your bathroom and shower may be used more. Moisture from showers can lead to mold and mildew growth, which may affect the lungs of people living with asthma. Use the bathroom fan to vent extra moisture to the outside. If you haven’t checked your fan lately, now is a good time. Remove any dust and dirt from the fan grill to keep it working properly. If your bathroom doesn’t have a fan, open a window if possible.

Cleaning

Regularly cleaning surfaces in your home is a good practice, and can also help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Taking some precautions when cleaning can help reduce the amount of indoor pollution created. If you are cleaning with chemical solutions, try to open windows vent fumes from your space. Additionally, you should never combine ammonia and chlorine bleach cleaners. This can produce a toxic gas which could be dangerous, and especially those who live with asthma. If possible, use a vacuum cleaner, which limits dust levels in the air. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also recommends removing your shoes when you enter your home, as they can bring in additional dirt, dust and germs.

Other Daily Activities

A number of other daily activities and products can worsen indoor air quality. Nail polish, candles and paint are just a few examples of products that can affect lungs, especially those of people living with lung disease. Open windows to circulate air in your home, or use these products outside if possible to protect those in your home living with asthma.

Smoking

Anyone in your home who smokes should do so outside, as smoke and vapor from tobacco and e-cigarette products can be especially irritating to the lungs of someone living with asthma. Also, if you live in multi-unit housing, be aware that some of your neighbors may be struggling at this time and their conditions could worsen from second hand smoke. If you are thinking about quitting, there are a number of resources to help you here.

Reduced activity outside the home has generally helped improve outdoor air quality. However, if you live near pollution sources like industrial facilities or major roadways, you may still risk contact with potentially harmful air pollution. Those living with asthma may also be sensitive to outdoor allergies. In these situations, opening windows is still a good option to ventilate your home. However, consider limiting the amount of time you leave them open. If opening windows is not possible, air filters may be another option to keep good air quality in your home. You should only use devices certified by a trusted source, as some filters use ionizing technology which can produce harmful gas inside your home. You can view a list of filters certified as safe here.

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You Can Do Pulmonary Rehab at Home

While at no greater risk of getting sick with COVID-19, people with lung diseases like COPD are at higher risk for becoming seriously ill if they do become infected. Continuing your respiratory therapy is an important way to stay healthy. As many pulmonary groups are suspending programs during this outbreak, we do not want social distancing to stop you from getting the exercise you need! There are a number of ways you can continue your pulmonary rehab at home.

We put together a number of resources to keep you moving in your own home. We encourage you to talk to your health care provider if you have any concerns about what exercises or activity will work best for you.

Download Fact Sheet: Pulmonary Rehabilitation at Home 

pulmonary rehab exercises

 

Video: Daily Pulmonary Rehab at Home Exercises

Developed by the University Health Network

We recognize the COVID-19 outbreak may be stressful for some people. One of the best things people can do to support themselves is to take
care of their bodies whether that be through regular exercise, meditation, or healthy eating.

Flu Season Continues into Spring

Preventing the Flu Among Adults with Asthma: Spring is Not Too Late for a Flu Shot!

People living with asthma are not more likely to get the flu than others, but face more risks once infected. The flu virus can further inflame airways, triggering asthma symptoms (chronic cough, wheezing, chest tightness) or even making them worse. It may also lead to other lung diseases like pneumonia. This is true for people with mild asthma or whose symptoms are well-controlled by medication.flu shot statistics

A flu shot is the best protection against the flu. Unfortunately, data from the CDC show less than one in three Illinois adults with asthma received a shot this year. This is the lowest number in eight years and well below the national average.

Flu activity is also widespread in Illinois this year. To date, 772 adults and 76 children who have asthma or chronic lung disease were also hospitalized with the flu.

Flu season continues through the spring months. The good news is whether you have asthma or not, there is still time to get a flu shot.
Find a location near you where they are available at vaccinefinder.org.

Respiratory Therapists are Lung Health Heroes

This week is Respiratory Care Week – a time to celebrate respiratory therapists who work tirelessly helping those living with lung diseases breathe easier. Whether testing for lung function in a young child with asthma, or helping someone with COPD use an oxygen tank, respiratory therapists give people the power to take control and live to the fullest.

Their work is especially important considering how common lung diseases are in the United States:

• 25 million people live with asthma
• 16 million live with COPD and another 16 million have undiagnosed symptoms
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among men and women

Respiratory therapists help people better understand and manage their illnesses, allowing them to live without distraction from symptoms. They also provide treatments to those in need of care, improving lung health and way of life.

For respiratory therapists like Rose Riggins, CRTT of AMITA LaGrange in Illinois, it’s way more than a job – it’s getting to know people, their lives and their stories.

“Working with the patients throughout the years has made them feel like family,” she says.

If you are living with lung disease, here are some of respiratory therapists’ most common tips for preventing additional complications and living the healthiest way possible:

• Get a flu shot every year to prevent additional complications of lung disease
• Live smoke-free and avoid secondhand smoke or close contact with smokers
• Eat right to maintain the most energy for staying healthy
• Avoid chemicals – like scented candles and harsh household cleaners – that may cause lung flare-ups
Monitor air quality and avoid the outdoors on poor air quality days

Join RHA this week and every day in saying thank you to respiratory therapists everywhere!

To learn more about becoming a respiratory therapist, view these resources.

New Grant Helps Grow RHA’s Asthma Program Reach to Youth in Need Across Illinois

Asthma is the number one chronic illness-related reason students in Illinois miss school – adding up to over 313,000 days out of the classroom each year. Working with children and teens to better understand and manage asthma can help them stay in class, prevent attacks and remain healthy.

Asthma program educators

RHA’s asthma program staff will provide training in schools across Illinois.

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) recently awarded Respiratory Health Association a Healthy Community Investments Grant to bring school-based asthma education to more people in Chicago and throughout Illinois. RHA will focus on sharing prevention programs with schools in high need communities across the state during the 2019-20 school year. This focus comes in part from a 2018 RHA report which shows the majority of asthma-related emergency room visits are African American children – at a rate five times higher than white children.

Two National Health Corps (NHC) members and four RHA asthma program staff will work with school administrators and nurses to schedule sessions and deliver the evidence-based Fight Asthma Now© (FAN) program to students. FAN helps students identify and avoid triggers and learn how to manage their medications. Students also receive a free spacer to help medicines work more effectively.

With the new grant funding, RHA will provide training to an additional 1,000 elementary, middle and high school students living with asthma over the course of the school-year. Data from past programs shows that 80% of students will better understand triggers and warning signs of asthma attacks, and the value of long-term medications and spacers. At least 75% of students will say they want to talk with an adult in their home about an Asthma Action Plan and asthma medications.

RHA has delivered FAN to more than 16,000 students in Chicago to date, and has also provided training to health department staff in southern Illinois. Asthma educators serving schools in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, California also received training to support new asthma programs in these areas.

If you are an administrator, nurse, teacher, parent or community member interested in bringing the FAN program to a school near you, please contact Mary Rosenwinkel, Program Coordinator at [email protected] or (312) 628-0227. You can also learn more and submit a request with our online form.

Thank you note from student

Students who participated in the 2018-19 FAN sessions shared thanks with RHA staff.

Thank you note from student

Students who participated in the 2018-19 FAN sessions shared thanks with RHA staff.

RHA to Study Impact of Air Pollution on Public Health in Chicago

All but two of the Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) 1,800 buses run on diesel fuel. Respiratory Health Association knows the health and environmental effects of vehicle pollution in the air and is focused on finding healthier transportation options for Chicago.

This summer, the Joyce Foundation awarded a one-year grant to help RHA explore the impacts of air pollution in communities throughout the city of Chicago. Funds will support a study of how diesel buses affect the lung health of residents and help increase efforts to educate leaders and the public on the potential benefits of electric vehicles.

Traffic at nighit in city

RHA’s study will explore the potential health benefits of using electric buses in place of diesel-powered vehicles.

“We see electric buses as a great opportunity, if not a necessity, for a healthier Chicago,” commented Erica Salem, RHA Senior Director, Strategy, Programs & Policy. “The Joyce Foundation’s generous grant allows us to examine how our city can move toward transportation options that provide cleaner air and healthy lungs for all Chicagoans.”

RHA will work closely with the University of Chicago’s Spatial Data Science and the Chicago Department of Public Health to study the health effect diesel buses have across different Chicago neighborhoods. Teams will compare data of those living with lung diseases who also live near busy bus routes, bus garages or maintenance shops to residents living in lower bus traffic communities.

This work builds on RHA’s efforts to secure Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s pledge for cleaner bus options. Chicago lags behind other major US cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, which have announced plans to move to all electric buses sometime in the next 20 years.

RHA will release a final report in the spring of 2020.

Flu Shot is a Gift for Your Lungs

Vaccines are a safe and important part of medical care for everyone. Regular immunizations prevent common bugs like the flu and limit the spread of disease through schools, workplaces and communities. For people living with lung disease, a flu shot is especially important. Someone with asthma or COPD:

  • Has a greater risk of catching common infections like the flu
  • May feel added effects from flu symptoms
  • Is more likely to develop pneumonia or other lung problems

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports flu shots may lower the risk of getting sick by 40 to 60 percent. It also helps those who cannot receive a shot, including children under 6 months old. Additionally, the CDC typically recommends a one-time pneumonia shot for those who live with lung disease.

August is National Immunization Awareness Month, and a great time to talk with your doctor about ways to stay healthy going into peak flu season. Flu cases are most common in the fall and winter, especially between December and February. Ask if you are up-to-date on past vaccines and about getting an annual flu shot.

If you do not have a regular doctor or healthcare provider, there are a number of local and national resources to help:

Tips for Back to School with Asthma

Asthma causes more missed school days than any other chronic illness, leading to an estimated 13.8 million days missed per year. For children with asthma, heading back to school can be safer and more fun if their parents do a little homework of their own.

It’s important to take the following steps before the school year begins to keep kids healthy in the classroom:

Young woman uses inhaler while in school

Having an inhaler on hand in school is important for kids with asthma.

• If your child experiences frequent asthma symptoms, visit a doctor as soon as possible.

• Make sure your child has a written Asthma Action Plan, and share a copy with the school nurse.

• Help your child practice taking his or her asthma medication, and make sure your child understands how important it is to keep the medicine close by at all times.

• Give consent for your student to carry their inhaler. Call the school or visit the school/district website to find the necessary consent form. Save the prescription label for your child’s asthma medication to provide with the form.

• If possible, keep an extra quick-relief inhaler where needed, whether in the home or at school.

• Talk your child’s teachers to make sure they understand your child’s asthma ‘triggers.’ Make sure teachers can recognize asthma symptoms and know what to do if they happen.

• Remind your children of the importance of general hygiene (hand washing, covering mouth while coughing, etc.) to prevent common cold and flu viruses that can make asthma symptoms worse.

• Make sure your child stays in the routine of taking long-term control medications, if prescribed. Skipping doses can lead to increased symptoms and missed school time.

• Remember to get your child an annual flu shot. Kids with asthma are at increased risk for upper respiratory viral infections, including the flu.

• Ask your school administrators to bring the Respiratory Health Association’s Fight Asthma Now© program to their students with asthma and Asthma Management to school personnel, parents and other caregivers of children with asthma.

Asthma is manageable. With proper planning, medication and awareness, both parents and children can breathe easy this school year.