Wildfires make this terrible disease even more frightening

Note to the Editor: Pamela Appea is a journalist based in New York City who covers health, science and intersectionality. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion at CNN

Asthma cut short my mother’s life and made each of my two children sick at different points in their lives. During one brief episode of my life I also fell ill, some years back. I’m better now but I’m always afraid of an asthma attack, taking over my family’s life, running us to midnight emergency room visits or making my kids miss another day of school.

Pamela Appea - Courtesy of Pamela Appea

Pamela Appea – Courtesy of Pamela Appea

I worry about asthma in winter when the frigid, dry air can make narrowed airways, irritated the intake of each labored breath. I worry about it in the spring, when the pollen in the air can trigger wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. I worry about it in the fall because my lungs aren’t quite used to the growing cold and when ragweed pollen fills the air.

But these days, my asthma concerns are mainly focused on the summer months.

Last year, billows of thick black smoke billowed from Canada’s sporadic wildfires, blackening the skies of the northern US plains and polluting the air as far away as New York City, where I live. Those blankets of smog settled across much of the US and descended on communities as far away as Florida. Some of the smoke even found its way to Europe. My family got the worst of the smog inside and luckily none of us got sick.

Now we may be on the verge of a repeat of last summer — and families like mine with a history of asthma are catching up again. Excruciating heat and devastating wildfires are back in Canada. Last month, fires across the border in Canada caused the evacuation of hundreds of people. Minnesota and Wisconsin issued warnings last month that people should stay indoors.

That was in the middle of May, when spring was still there. I shudder to think what August will bring. Research has shown that wildfire smoke can be linked to the onset of asthma. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 25 million Americans have asthma, so I doubt many others feel the same sense of dread that I do.

There is another connection between Canada, asthma and my family — and it’s a bit accidental. My mother, an immigrant from Ghana, spent many years living in Canada, although she did not develop asthma until we moved to the United States.

Migrants from Africa to North America are unfamiliar with its circuitous path. After emigrating from Ghana, my mother spent a few years in England, and then moved to Quebec, where she lived and worked. Divorced, she was left to raise me, my older sister and two older brothers alone. She ultimately decided that New York City, with its rich immigrant community, including a good number of people from the African diaspora, was a better place to raise her family than the remote village in rural Canada where we were. only among Black people.

The Chief Executive of Manitoba, Canada, Wab Kinnew, surveys wildfires in a helicopter that ravaged the northern part of the province last month.  - David Lipnowski/The Canadian Press/APThe Chief Executive of Manitoba, Canada, Wab Kinnew, surveys wildfires in a helicopter that ravaged the northern part of the province last month.  - David Lipnowski/The Canadian Press/AP

The Chief Executive of Manitoba, Canada, Wab Kinnew, surveys wildfires in a helicopter that ravaged the northern part of the province last month. – David Lipnowski/The Canadian Press/AP

But shortly after she came to the United States, my mother developed adult-onset asthma. It could be due to stress, or environmental issues, genetics or a combination of factors, it’s impossible to say. At the time she started getting sick more often, I was about 10. But even at that tender age, I quickly realized that asthma medications in the United States were too expensive. The high price tag meant that the medication my mother desperately needed was sometimes out of stock.

Having lost someone so close to me to asthma, I am very familiar with the symptoms of the illness. My mom would not usually admit to me and my three older sisters that she was feeling bad, but as a child, I learned to read her signs. I remember the helplessness I felt during her asthma attacks as her wheezing gradually worsened.

I was worried during the doctor’s appointment that I was sometimes with her, when she gave up on her list of ailments – tightness in her chest and not being able to take in air. After she labored breathing, my mother would look exhausted and exhausted. I now understand that asthma episodes, especially untreated ones, can put significant stress on the body. I wonder if the damage caused by the cumulative effect of her asthma episodes cost her her life.

Unfortunately, my mom’s challenges with getting asthma medication continued. Co-pays and uncovered prescription costs put a strain on our family budget. There were times when my mother did not fill her prescription for asthma medication out of concern for the cost. Then one night about thirty years ago, his asthma struck again. It was a very serious incident that left my mother so short of breath that she could not say more than a few words at a time.

Before losing the ability to speak completely that day, my mother asked me to call a family friend to take her to the hospital — worried, as always, about money and how the cost of an ambulance would strain addition to our family finances. By the time we finally got to the emergency room, she was unconscious. A short while later, she was gone. Asma claimed my mother when she was just 48 years old, which should have been the main interest of her life.

Over the years with the signs and symptoms after years of living with asthma – first as a child of someone with the condition, then as a mother of two children with severe asthma development. I know that asthma has a genetic component. Research shows that if you have a parent with asthma, you have a 25% chance of developing asthma yourself.

I think of my mother trying to stretch her medication. I don’t know what I would do without access to a reliable supply of Albuterol, a home nebulizer, maintenance medications and the guidance of medical professionals I respect and trust.

Still, I remain vigilant because there is no cure for asthma and my family is so susceptible to its ravages.

I keep a constant eye on pollen counts, and news reports about shortages of a potentially life-saving medication my family needs to fight asthma.

I now also keep an eye on the weather, for forecasts of fires a thousand miles away that could initiate another terrible episode of the illness that has already stolen so much from me.

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