A woman who is out of breath running after a train

My Recent Acute Asthma Attack

The downside of having your asthma so well controlled is that the second you miss a beat, it can come back to haunt you in the form of an acute asthma attack – and it’s terrifying.

Usually, things are fine

I’ve lived a pretty active and fulfilling life. I played sports for years, exercised when a lack of motivation wasn’t a factor, gone on hikes in high elevations, traveled, attended smoke-filled concerts, lived in cities with pollution from buses and sidewalk smokers, and more.

I’ve never let any of my chronic conditions define me. I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in my knees two years ago, IBS about 10 years ago, and I’ve had asthma and allergies my entire life. I also have an annoying sleep disorder which causes me to talk in my sleep every night – which leads to a serious lack of quality REM sleep. I’d be lying if I said I also didn’t struggle with mental health, but that’s another story.

It sounds like WAY too much for one person to handle when I type it out, but I honestly forget I have these things most days. Some call that being stubborn. Some call that being resilient. I call it just living. I look at the bigger picture and I tend to put asthma on the bottom of my priority list. In fact, it's always been that way.

Background info on my asthma maintenance

When I was in college, there was no Affordable Care Act, or insurance under your parents until age 26. And because I went to school five years after high school, I had long since lost my parents’ health insurance coverage. I worked full-time for the first two years but dropped to part-time and lost my benefits through my employer for the last two years. That left me with relying on the university’s student insurance. If you’ve ever depended on this, you know just how poor it can be for people with chronic conditions like asthma.

I quickly learned that by only paying out of pocket for 15 tablets per month, I could ration my Singulair so that I could take it every other day. I'd never run into any bad side effects. As a reminder, Singulair can help reduce the risk of severe asthma attacks. This is not recommended, and I’m not condoning the behavior. I was very foolish to do this, and I’m very lucky I never suffered any consequences. I’m speaking to the nature of how things were then, what I could afford, and what I did to survive at the time. I encourage anyone having difficulty paying for their life-saving medication to ask for help. That’s something I didn’t do.

The perfect storm for an acute asthma attack

Like clockwork, I always have an asthma attack when the temperature drops in the fall. It’s just something that happens once a year, and usually, my inhaler rescues me. And honestly, it’s usually my only asthma attack for at least six months. Again, I’m usually really well-controlled. My biggest misstep this time was that I conveniently forgot to pick up my refill of my Singulair at the pharmacy two days in a row. That’s two days without medication. I didn’t even do that in college!

I just walked out of an appointment and needed to catch two trains home. The time schedules align perfectly, but if I miss the first one, I will miss the second. The problem? I had only three minutes to get to the first train and it’s normally an 8-minute walk. I figured I'd run, being someone who used to (used to – cough, cough.) I held on to my backpack straps with my work computer inside and ran like the wind.

The first asthma attack in a year

I immediately noticed chest pain, but I pushed through. It was hurting to breathe in, and every part of my body told me to just walk and grab a Lyft or Uber home. Still stubborn, I sprinted and made it to the platform with a minute to spare. My knees were surprisingly fine, but my lungs were screaming. I was having trouble breathing without chest pain but made sure to focus on breathing in slowly through my nose and out of my mouth. I used my rescue inhaler, but it didn’t help very much. Panic set in. I texted my fiancé that I wasn’t sure what to do.

I sipped my water and coughed persistently on that first train, mentally beating myself up for doing this. I forgot my medication for two days, ran during the first cold day of the year, and had no backup plan. I haven’t used a nebulizer regularly since I was 11, and I’ve only been to the ER once for my asthma. I don’t own a nebulizer, so I should have gone to the ER that night. Always stubborn, I didn’t. I got to the second train station slowly, but still struggled with shortness of breath and extreme chest pain.

Recovering from an acute asthma attack

I was still having a hard time by the time I got home an hour later. I rummaged through my nightstand and used my steroid inhaler that I keep around for when I’m sick or having difficulty with a change in seasons. A few hours went by, and I used my rescue inhaler again and spent most of the night propped up in bed trying to stay calm.

I went to work the next day like a dummy. I sat at my desk and coughed and kept up with my rescue inhaler every few hours. I hid my worst fears – that I did permanent damage to my body and risked having a heart attack. It took me days to normalize.

The moral of the story is to always remember your meds even when you’re doing just fine. Asthma is a life-threatening condition that should never be discounted or ignored. Please pay attention to the warning signs, the environment, and be mindful that our wellness can change in an instant.

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