"Bad Lungs"

Last updated: November 2022

Living with severe asthma for many years, I have learned a lot about communication, for better or for worse.

Both in high school and now as a college student, I have had to ask for a lot of accommodations. In high school, a lot of this looked like my teachers having to let me out of class to go take my nebulized treatment from the nurse's station, getting my absences excused for all my excessive doctor's appointments, and eventually helping me access work digitally/from home when I had to go to partial days for a few months while my lungs would not stop flaring. It was easy enough to get the accommodations, but not always easy to get my teachers to follow through.

College is the exact reverse: my professors are very understanding and school has been very accommodating, but it was a challenge going through all the processes to get assistance.

Communicating about my asthma

Obviously, there are other factors at play such as the differences between college and high school themselves, but one major difference is how I have communicated about my chronic illnesses. Everyone in high school knew I had asthma, but in college, I refer to my asthma as "bad lungs."

What having asthma is like for me

I think asthma gets downplayed a lot. Asthma is such a heterogeneous disease, ranging from mild intermittent to severe persistent. These classifications don't necessarily do the best job either at explaining the differences in diagnosis; a person with asthma who is mild intermittent may only need their rescue inhaler a few times a week whereas those who live with severe persistent might need rescue medications a few times a day.1

I fall into the latter category: severe persistent. I don't think even those two descriptive words do enough to illustrate the challenges I face daily. Anywhere I go, so does my nebulizer, the number of controller medications I am on is well past the double digits, and I rely on short-acting bronchodilators in my system every 3-4 hours to function. I do understand I have an unusual case and I am no stranger to hearing that from my pulmonologists, but nonetheless, I don't think the stereotypical asthma image even comes close to encompassing my (or others') realities.

The chance to educate

If I tell someone I have asthma, the usual response I get is, "And...?" The world seems to depict asthma as something infrequent and inconsequential; simply type the word into your images tab and you will be flooded with images of people (most often young children) casually puffing an inhaler. Speaking from personal experience, using your rescue medications is rarely such a casual and easy event.

My high school was aware of my asthma diagnosis, and I actually had a teacher ask me one time, "Do you just have a hard time breathing sometimes?" That response was no fault of my teacher but demonstrated how undereducated people are in regards to asthma and its effects. Thankfully, it was a perfect moment to educate, and from then one he seemed to understand a bit more how challenging living with severe asthma is.

How I explain my asthma now: "Bad lungs"

I am an open book when it comes to my asthma and other chronic illnesses, but I have been a bit more guarded when addressing my college professors. When explaining my needs, I have been turning to the phrase, "Long story short, I have really bad lungs, and this is what I have to do to take care of them." The response has been drastically different, and so far it seems to be easier to get accommodations and understanding. It's not being dishonest by a long shot; I do indeed have bad lungs. I hate that I have to change the way I communicate to get people to take me seriously, but until the true severity of asthma is understood better, I think I will stick to changing how I present it.

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