Smoke isolated on black background

I grew up breathing second-hand cigarette smoke, but I didn’t develop asthma until I was in my late 40s and early 50s. At first, I was diagnosed with cough variant asthma, because instead of wheezing, I would have an uncontrollable cough that usually started with a cold. My asthma is not well-controlled with medications, and I have been unable to work as a registered nurse for the past three years because every time I got a virus, I would end up wheezing and coughing and being short of breath for weeks. It is really hard to avoid airborne germs when you work in a hospital. With an immune problem that makes me more prone to infections as well, I was spending most of my days sick.

Now asthma is a serious disease that can quickly go from “I’m breathing easily” to “Yikes! I need to go to the ER now! I can’t get enough air!” My biggest frustration is that I can’t control what the air is like in public places. Those without lung problems might not know how hard certain things can make it for people with lung disease to breathe. Not being able to breathe easily is scary and potentially deadly. One example of air quality causing breathing problems happened when my past employer had a large quantity of mulch spread around the outside of the building. The combination of a strong aroma and mold made it impossible to walk from the parking lot to the building without getting an asthma attack. If they had put out a notice about it beforehand, I could have used a mask and saved myself misery. But some businesses don’t announce these things because people don’t always realize mulch can cause breathing difficulties.

Strong odors from tobacco products (like cigarette smoke), perfumes, soaps and cleaning solutions can cause an asthma attack, so I have to avoid these things also. This makes getting to the unscented laundry detergent another one of those hold-your-breath-and-hurry projects.

Another practice that affects air quality is burning household trash or yard waste. Those who burn these items are within their rights if it is allowed in their community. But I feel angry and frustrated when I have to move inside or close my windows because others are burning trash. Why does the right to burn garbage supersede my right to breathe?

Unfortunately, I don’t always remember these things, so every once in a while I get an asthma attack from not paying attention. Recently, I had to drive into the city to see my specialist. It was a hot, humid day. On top of that, the parking garage was crowded due to construction; there were too few parking spaces for all the people who had appointments that day. After driving around for 20 minutes seeking a parking space, I was running late. I forgot the mask in my purse, rushed through the garage to my appointment and arrived with a full blown asthma attack! I should have put my mask on, but honestly I don’t want to need a mask. They are hot and uncomfortable and can make it feel harder to breathe. I also feel self-conscious with one on.

So if you have healthy lungs, please remember that what you do can affect the air those of us with asthma breathe as well as your own air. For example, if you burn trash or yard waste, consider exploring alternative ways to get rid of it. Or if you have associates, friends or family members with lung disease, consider not wearing strong smelling perfumes or colognes around them or using strong smelling cleaning products around them.

Be an advocate for clean air in your community!

And lastly, if you have a loved one with asthma, remind them to take and use a mask when air conditions warrant it. They will likely be grateful you did!

Image via Thinkstock Images


When I was 3 years old, I had my first asthma attack. I don’t remember what it was like — on account of I was 3 — but it was a pretty important moment in my life all the same. I had to get a nebulizer and start taking regular medication. The doctors said I would probably grow out of it.

When I was 10, I came down with a cold. It exacerbated my asthma, and we went to the ER on a Friday night. Apparently, I screamed and struggled wildly while I was in the ER. I don’t remember what that was like either — on account of I was delirious — but my mom said it took four people to get me under control. The next thing I remembered was waking up on a Tuesday morning. The doctors said I would probably grow out of it.

Common colds aren’t the only things that trigger my asthma attacks, though. Sometimes it’s cold weather, warm weather or a sudden or gradual change between the two. Sometimes it’s damp air or dry air, dust, smoke, pollen or aerosol sprays. Sometimes it’s something in grass after it’s been mowed. Sometimes it’s strong emotions, and often it takes very little physical exertion.

When I was 12, my teacher insisted I climb a mountain (OK, it was a 469-foot high volcanic plug, but I was 12 — it looked like a mountain) as part of a class trip. I insisted it was a terrible idea, but she was unsympathetic. When I had an asthma attack at the top (surprise!), she scolded me for falling behind the rest of the class. I was pretty sure I would grow out of it.

When I was 19, I came down with a cold. I hadn’t been sick enough to go to the hospital in years, and I didn’t think anything of it, even as it lingered and my chest grew tighter and my breathing grew shallower. Even when the exertion of walking to the bathroom was enough to leave me breathless and frightened. Even when I couldn’t lie comfortably in bed because no matter what I did, I couldn’t breathe deeply enough.

Finally, I went to the ER and was admitted with an “acute exacerbation of asthma.” I had a chest X-ray that looked clear. I kept my head this time, and I complained that couldn’t possibly be right — there was something wrong. I stayed the night and had another X-ray, and finally, someone conceded I had a chest infection and prescribed antibiotics. I spent two more nights in ICU and another on the ward before I could breathe well enough to go home. I was still waiting to grow out of it.

Last year, when I was 22, I was losing a tickle fight to my boyfriend when I had an asthma attack. If I run to catch my train, if I walk by someone smoking, if someone sprays their deodorant nearby or if I laugh too hard, I might have an asthma attack.

When I was younger, it was easy to put my asthma to the back of my mind as something I would grow out of eventually, and so it was easy to not take my asthma seriously. Since my last visit to the ER four years ago, I’ve met with a specialist to learn more about what happens during an attack and how my medication helps.

Since losing that tickle fight, I’ve come to accept I’ll probably need my medication for the rest of my life. But I’ve also had to accept that I live with a serious, life-threatening disease, and unfortunately, I don’t get to grow out of it.

The Mighty is asking the following: What is a part of your or a loved one’s disease, disability or mental illness that no one is aware of? Why is it time to start talking about it? If you’d like to participate, please check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

At the age of 4, I was diagnosed with severe asthma and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. During sophomore year of high school, I developed multiple allergies out of blue. I became allergic to corn, all tree nuts, and cats to name a few. Junior year became the ultimate battle for my health. In 2008, I could not tolerate most foods and vomited shortly after having a meal. I ate the same frozen TV dinner for two years because I could tolerate it. During this time, I became extremely ill and weighed only 95 pounds.

Most of the doctors had a hard time diagnosing my illness. Eventually, I discovered the source of my illness from a colonoscopy and endoscopy. I had an ongoing allergic reaction that wrecked havoc on my body. With patience and a specialized diet, I started to gain my weight prior to the start of my freshmen year in college for the fall 2010 semester.

My physicians recommended I relocate to Arizona since it is historically known to be therapeutic to asthmatics, so I decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering at Arizona State University. During my freshman year, my health significantly improved; however, it did not last. My body adjusted to the new environment and I had multiple relapses. I had two medical withdrawals for a series of asthmatic flares during the fall 2011 semester and 2014 semester. Throughout my undergraduate experience, I juggled a rigorous academic schedule with a medical schedule.

In my undergraduate experience, I had difficulty with a professor of one of my critical courses. Based on my program, I cannot take any future upper division engineering courses without passing this course and it is only offered in the fall semesters. During the beginning of the fall 2013 semester, I was treated for bronchitis at the hospital. I followed up with my professor regarding the current situation. I provided medical documentation and a copy of my homework assignment because I wanted to demonstrate to her good faith and my dedication to the program. I asked for a possible extension on our first homework assignment because I was very ill and did not have a chance to go over the homework during the teaching assistant’s office hours. She replied, “The graders will accept late homework, but with a penalty. You are probably best off to turn in what you have this morning.”

I decided to email the dean of the department about my concern regarding this course. I was allowed an extension; however, this action created a volatile environment. I failed the course and wanted to pursue a grade appeal. During a grade appeal, the student works with the dean designee, who served as a mediator between the professor and myself. However, I followed the dean designee’s advice to not pursue a grade appeal due to the lack of evidence.

In the fall 2014 semester, I took the course for the second time and missed two labs due to illness. Throughout the semester, I emailed my lab TA regularly to ask when it would be convenient for me to make up these labs. In short, my TA was not aware of my professor’s lab policies. As a result, I had to complete my lab reports during finals week so my professor could turn the grades in on time. Although I was given a two-day extension, my other classmates had two weeks to complete each lab report with assistance from the TAs. I did not have assistance from the TAs because they were studying for their finals. Ultimately, I failed my final exams and received a D for the course.

I decided to pursue a grade appeal again because I felt I was treated unfairly and had a better case. The grade appeal process took five months to complete. Although I won the appeal, I was exhausted and emotionally drained. As a result, I had to repeat the course for a third time.

In the fall 2015 semester, my professor decided to add a new policy to her syllabus. I believe this policy served as retaliation to my grade appeal of the lab reports in the previous semester. The policy stated, “Any student with more than one lab absence, regardless of whether the absence is excused or unexcused, will not receive a passing grade in the course.” Despite this new policy, I missed only one lab and passed the course.

It’s scary that I may not graduate due to financial aid regulations. “Satisfactory academic progress” is one criterion used for my financial aid. In order to receive financial aid, you must not exceed the maximum amount of credit hours for your program and have a pace rate above 67 percent. Currently, I am a senior and have five classes left until graduation. Unfortunately, I have exceeded the maximum amount of credit hours due to my medical withdrawals. I have to pursue a SAP appeal and explain my extenuating circumstances for prolonged graduation despite having a good pace rate of 82 percent. This is one of the problems that students with chronic illnesses may run into.

Currently, I am writing a creative non-fiction about college students living with chronic illnesses for my honors project. Throughout my undergraduate experience, there were no support groups on campus for this issue and I wanted to know if there were other students like me. I created a survey to understand public opinion, which I have received over 200 responses. Additionally, I have over 40 students to interview about their unique college experiences.

From my research, it seems most colleges have inadequate policies regarding college students living with chronic illnesses. One of the biggest challenges I found is absence policy. Many students I surveyed said their colleges and universities do not consider a medically documented illness as an excused absence. They rely on the professors to create their own policies for illnesses. On the other hand, most universes allow students to make up their assignments for religious accommodations or university sanctioned events. Unfortunately, my research showed that there are some professors who are not willing to give these students an opportunity to make up their missed assignments. As a result, the student may be forced to withdraw from the course or contact the dean and director of the department to reach a resolution.

Recently, I created a petition on called “Conquer the Chronic Life: A call to action for parents and students.” The petition is designed to raise awareness and create a new bill. This bill would allow a medically documented illness as an excused absence at all colleges and universities, so the student has an opportunity to compete their program.

Additionally, I created the hashtag #CSWCI (college students with chronic illnesses) to create a community, which I hope will become an organization some day. I plan to release a book on May 3, 2016, which is World Asthma Day. I would like future college students to learn from my undergraduate experience.

girl wearing mask standing with rolling backpack
Monique wearing her mask and standing with her backpack on campus.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s the hardest thing you deal with as someone with a chronic illness, and how do you face this? What advice and words of support would you offer someone facing the same thing? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

I have a relatively healthy daughter who would get colds twice a year that were hard to clear up. What started as typical symptoms would turn into a post-nasal drip cough that would go on and on and on.

Then she took a nose dive during what our family now refers to as the “Worst Spring Break Ever.” On Friday, we were packing to head out on a cross-country trip when my daughter developed a high fever accompanied by the strangest cough. My first thought was the flu.

Monday came along and she still had a high fever and a cough that seemed to have a wheeze at the end of it. I hadn’t heard her cough like that before. Off to the pediatrician. After the flu and strep tests came back clear, it was deemed a virus was affecting her lungs, and we were given an inhaler. I talked with the pediatrician about our trip. We were supposed to leave the following morning, but given my daughter’s temperature and the distance we were going travel, we were advised to stay home. Spring break was officially cancelled.

During the next two days, we made two more trips to the pediatrician’s office and one to the hospital. In addition to the inhaler, my daughter was given steroids for the cough and X-rays for pneumonia. By Wednesday, her cough was loud and deep, and that night she started coughing and didn’t stop. It seemed to shake the walls and floorboards in our home. No one could sleep. I thought to myself, “What kind of virus is this?”

The next morning, I called the pediatrician and spoke with a nurse, who could hear my daughter through the phone, and she mentioned whooping cough. Apparently around the age of 10, some children can catch whooping cough just as the vaccination begins to wane before the booster. The nurse told me to bring her in again.

We got to the doctor’s office, and my daughter’s cough was rattling off the office walls. Before our pediatrician could even walk entirely into the room, she said, “Oh no!” Then she told me she could no longer help my daughter, and she needed to go the ER. I associate the ER with life-threatening conditions. “Really, is it that bad?” I asked. The doctor grabbed both of my hands and answered, “Yes, she needs breathing treatments that I can’t give her.” “Oh,” I replied, feeling deflated.

At the ER, they gave my daughter breathing treatments and released us with a breathing machine they give to children who have asthma. The ER doctor indicated that perhaps I’m overreacting. I wanted to yell, “My doctor advised me to take her here. I didn’t just rush here because I’m worried about a little cough!” I held my temper and didn’t comment, but now I was mad.

It turned out that my daughter does have asthma. Remember the colds I mentioned earlier? That was actually a cough-variant asthma triggered by seasonal allergies and exasperated by cold viruses. We didn’t pick up on it at first because it only presented as a cough for her, not as the wheezing you might see in the movies. It took the “Worst Spring Break Ever” and my daughter’s asthma attack to realize she had it.

My daughter’s pediatrician, who is a former pediatric ER doctor, stands by her decision to send my daughter to the ER. Now my daughter takes multiple medications to help manage her asthma. She no longer consistently gets never-ending colds, but it’s been a learning process because her day-to-day asthma symptoms don’t present themselves the way I’ve seen them depicted in mass media. For her, the most telling symptom when she’s having problems is a cough, and it’s something we can no longer ignore.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness, and what would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

Today you saw me using my locker in the lab buildings at the university — the ones we aren’t meant to have on long-term loan and are emptied out after each session. You saw me putting the key back on my lanyard, putting my lab coat, folder and some other bits into the locker, shutting the door and walking out. I heard you mention to your friends how unfair it is that I get to have that locker and nobody else can. Well, let me explain why I have that locker.

I have a couple of health problems: brittle asthma, adrenal insufficiency, diabetes, supraventricular tachycardia (in other words, my heart goes super fast sometimes), I’ve had both hips replaced and am waiting on shoulder surgery. I also have a couple of life-threatening reactions. (I’m not actually in university right now, because I’m in the hospital following a life-threatening exacerbation of my asthma.)

collection of medical supplies and medications
Vicky’s medical supplies.

So, needless to say, I have to carry a fair amount of extra medications around with me. It’s what I like to call my “get out of jail free” kit. It’s basically the stuff that, if it really came down to it, would keep me alive. It sounds dramatic, but it’s kind of true. What you see in the photo is my EpiPen — for when I react to the balloons that are currently all over the student union, or have a massive asthma attack that goes from zero to 100 in five seconds — my steroid injection kit, some nebulisers to stop my airways from closing up when I have a reaction to someone’s deodorant, and some cereal bars for when my blood sugar goes dangerously low and I start getting grumpy and confused. That little orange tin has a lot of tablets in it, too. It really does start to add up. And that’s not including the device I have to carry around for my nebules or my blood sugar testing kit.

So I have to carry a lot around in my backpack. Also, don’t forget that I’m waiting for surgery on my shoulder, so carrying a heavy bag can add to the pain I get there and in my hips, which have both been replaced.

Add into that normal university stuff, like books, notepads, a pencil case, a drink and then whatever else I have in my bag. It gets heavy. I also like to keep spare supplies in there in case I manage to forget something important, so I’m not stuck at school without a rather important medication or piece of equipment. I think that’s fair.

But I know “it’s really unfair that there’s one rule for one person, and another for everyone else,” and I would totally agree with you that they should provide us all with lockers. But there are about 3,000 people at our university.

I know you didn’t mean it in a nasty way, or at least I hope you didn’t. But I hope now you can see why I don’t like having to carry a heavy lab coat, my folders and lab stuff around with me all day after a lab, and why I do need to have a locker. It’s important.

The Mighty is asking the following: Write a letter to anyone you wish had a better understanding of your experience with disability, disease or mental illness. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

I was at a friend’s graduation party when a family friend of hers who I had never met before asked me if I had been a “sheltered child.” I assumed he meant had I grown up with parents with conservative ideals so I said yes. “Ha!” he yelled, “That’s why you have asthma. Amish kids don’t get asthma because they’re outside all the time.” But before I could tell him I misunderstood his question and I had, in fact, been an outdoorsy kid, he said asthma was a mental problem and he had read about a mysterious “study” that supposedly stated Amish kids have lower rates of asthma than the general population.

This attitude has followed me my whole life, from the teachers who had no interest in helping me catch up when I missed school because I was sick to gym teachers who made me run until I blacked out to prove a point.

I’ve tried every medication there is. I’m on the most expensive and, apparently, most generally effective medication there is for adults with asthma like mine. And my asthma is still not what most people would probably deem “well controlled.”

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A lot of people do grow out of asthma, yes, but some people don’t. Your cousin’s asthma may not be the same as the kid next door’s asthma. It can affect people in different ways. And no, it’s not in my head. I didn’t make part of my left lung collapse when I was a 7-year-old kid mentally. My parents didn’t cause me to have it by sheltering me. And no stranger ever has the right to approach anyone with any illness and try to dictate their own story back to them, invalidate them or give them crackpot “advice” about a “magical cure” as if we don’t know anything about our illnesses.

After 27 years of living with a chronic illness that interferes with my daily life, I know the most valuable thing you can do for any sick person, regardless of what kind of illness or disability they have, is to listen and validate. To really hear what they’re saying and not to try to interject because some things you hear might scare you or make you uncomfortable. It’s the complete opposite of what most of us, at least me, have experienced our whole lives, but it’s a crucial step in tearing down this strange victim-blaming culture I’ve seen in the chronic illness world.

We’re all making the best out of what we’ve been given. It’s not all in our heads. It’s real and it can be scary. Trust me, I know. But acting like our symptoms and illnesses don’t exist isn’t helping anyone.

Real People. Real Stories.

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