Tag Archives: Conditions and Diseases

Understanding life with asthma

Darius Collins tries to blow on his pretend air tube while his parents watch.

Try this. Roll up a piece of paper. Stuff it with cotton balls. Wrap the roll in tightly wound rubber bands to hold the cotton in place.

Then put  your mouth up to one end and try to breathe. That’s what it feels like when a child is in the throes of an acute asthma attack.

Understanding what asthma is — what it does to the body and how to respond — can help children cope with a disease that is not curable, but is in most cases completely controllable. That’s why Cardon Children’s Medical Center provides free asthma education and support programs for families in the East Valley and beyond.

One such event was held last Saturday in a classroom overlooking Tempe’s Kiwanis Recreation Center indoor wave pool. I was there with RAK multimedia journalist Vicki Balint, who was producing a video about the asthma support group and education program.

Certified asthma educator Diana Braskett, RN, CPNP, AE-C, was stationed at the first table families encountered after signing in. She pulled out a diagram of the lungs, answered questions and showed children how to make a pretend air tube.

Diana Braskett demonstrates the air tube activity.

“The cotton balls simulate the effect of swelling,” she explained. “The rubber bands are muscles constricting.”

Having asthma can be tedious. Braskett knows; she has a mild case herself. “You get tired of taking medicine,” she says. “I can relate. It’s especially hard for the little ones. They don’t understand.”

But understanding is key to the ability to carry on, to stay healthy, to participate in the activities a child enjoys.

Children must become familiar with their own particular asthma “triggers,” which may include dust, allergies, seasonal changes, rain, humidity, cold, exercise, upper respiratory infections and more, Braskett told me.

They must learn modifications to avoid those triggers — sometimes something as simple as knowing to stay indoors when the weather (or pollution) is bad. And they must follow their doctor’s treatment plan to the letter.

Each child’s treatment plan is different, of course, so no one approach applies across the board. (Learn more about asthma on Cardon Children’s website.)

Asthma educator Kim Reiners talks to Keegan Palmer about a peak flow meter.

Surprisingly, exercise is usually encouraged. Swimming, especially, can be good for children with asthma (if they are not sensitive to chlorine) because it forces rhythmic breathing and helps them develop upper-body strength. Children for whom exercise can be an asthma trigger may be taught to use their “rescue meds” before they participate, Baskett says.

“Some parents are afraid to let their kids exercise when it can be the best thing for them,” adds Kim Reiners, R.N., CPNP, AE-C, who pioneered the asthma support group and education effort at Cardon Children’s. Her station at the event allowed kids the chance to blow hard into a peak flow meter to measure their speed of expiration, or ability to breathe out.

At another station, Paula White, R.N., CNP, AE-C, was leading a board game. While it didn’t have the most enticing name (“The Breathe Easy Asthma Education Interactive Tool,” by Merck), the kids seemed to enjoy the opportunity to drive little cars around a “city,” landing on destinations like hospitals and parks to learn specific facts about asthma.

Paula White shows Isaiah and Issac Salter how to playan asthma education board game as their mom watches.

Families that attended the program were issued free wristbands for a swim in the wave pool after the event. So at times it seemed the greatest challenge they faced that morning was finding the patience to wait until the pool opened.


That beautiful heart

I had a new appreciation for the heavy pounding of my heart as I trudged up the mountain trail near my home late this afternoon. I will never again take for granted the miraculous choreography of muscle, tissue and resilient fibers that keep my heart functioning and strong.

This morning, I attended a two-hour symposium, “Living with Heart Valve Disease,” at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center. Almost everyone in the audience was there because they have some type of heart disease — or a loved one who does.

Lishan Aklog, M.D., director of The Cardiovascular Center and chief of cardiovascular surgery at St. Joseph’s Heart & Lung Institute, gave a crash course in heart valve disease, diagnosis and repair. “Plumbing 101,” as he called it. He and Brian deGuzman, M.D., the hospital’s associate chief of cardiovascular surgery, take turns doing these Saturday morning presentations, typically once or twice a month. Some of the symposiums focus on valves; some on atrial fibrillation. All are free to the public. All are presented by two very busy doctors with families of their own who volunteer time to do this  because they believe that patients deserve to be fully educated about their options and involved in decisions about their care.

Aklog showed lots of diagrams, pictures and even audio/video clips to support his explanations. He used analogies to facilitate understanding. (“Think of valves as the doors leading to the rooms that are the chambers of the heart.”) At one point, he played two audio files — one with the steady “lub-dub, lub-dub” of a healthy heartbeat, the other with the eerie, whooshing sound of a narrowed aortic valve.

Imagine a valiant heart struggling to pump gallon of blood every hour through a tiny pinhole. That can happen with severe aortic stenosis. Imagine a determined heart working overtime to prevent the backwash of blood when the “parachute chords” that typically yank the flaps of the mitral valve closed have evaporated or frayed. That can happen with mitral regurgitation.

As Aklog explained complex terms, flipped through visuals on his PowerPoint presentation and patiently answered questions from the audience, I saw anatomy as poetry, anatomy as art.

One morning next week I will don scrubs and watch an open heart surgery. It’s background for some future writing, part of a larger story that involves deGuzman, the adoptive father of four Ethiopia-born children, and Aklog, his Ethiopia-born colleague, collaborator and friend.

That day, I will see anatomy as adventure.

For information about future Heart & Lung Institute symposiums, call 1-877-602-4111 or email info@heart-valveclinic.com.