an emergency room entrance with a big sign and an ambulance parked out front

Can You Die from an Asthma Attack?

Sadly, yes, you can die from an asthma attack.

Every day in America, 10 people die from asthma.1 Many of you reading this may have lost a friend or loved one to asthma. My heart goes out to you. This has always been one of my fears - that one of my children would die from asthma. My (now adult) children were in the hospital 12 times when they were young - and 2 of those were in the ICU. It's terrifying! Most of their hospital stays were from pneumonia, but they also had problems with poor air quality in winter, and smoke from a local forest fire one summer.

It's scary to see how fast one of my kids could go from bad to worse. I would be at the after hours clinic with my daughter or middle son at 8 pm, and by midnight or 2 am, they were worse... and I would be on my way to the ER.

My children struggle with asthma

Decades later, my kids still struggle with asthma on occasion, especially when they get pneumonia or bronchitis. Don't get me started on worrying about one of them getting COVID.

I've done everything I can as a parent. I went back to college to earn another degree so I could work full-time as a Certified Asthma Educator (AE-C). My goal is to make sure my family and other families are educated about asthma so they can know how to control it.

What I have taught my children about managing asthma

I taught my kids:

  • How to have correct inhaler technique
  • Why they need to take their controller inhaler every day
  • Know when to call the doctor vs going straight to the ER
  • How to make their apartments allergy and asthma friendly

And now they are now teaching their colleagues how to use their inhalers properly! They actually listened to me over the years! But what if that's not enough?

Dying from an asthma attack

What if someone you know or love dies from an asthma attack? Years ago, I wrote an article about a young woman, Laura Levis, who died of an asthma attack. Her husband, Peter DeMarco, wrote a heartfelt letter to the hospital staff who kept his wife alive after she stopped breathing during a severe asthma attack.

At first, it seemed that her asthma attack came on strong and fast and she just didn't get to the ER in time. Later, her husband found that by the time she got medical help, it was too late. She stopped breathing outside the ER. He said there were a series of mistakes that night, one of those was confusion over which door was the right door to the ER. And why one of the doors was locked.2

Peter DeMarco said:

"Of all the mistakes that contributed to Laura's death, perhaps most glaring was how the hospital lacked a simple, emergency-room sign above any door. Confused by this, Laura tried the wrong door, which was locked. Her attack overcame her before she could make it to the right door."

Four years later, Peter lobbied the Governor of Massachusetts to make changes in all hospitals. These standards will go into effect after the pandemic winds down. Laura's Law will make ER entrances easy to find with standards for lighting, ER signs, security guards on staff, and a panic button.

Would you know how to get to your ER?

When I teach families about asthma, I ask them what insurance they have, and do they know which hospital is covered under their insurance? Do they know how to get there? Do they have a babysitter or neighbor who could watch their other children if they had to rush a child to the hospital? I tell them to make a plan ahead of time because we might not think clearly when we are rushing a family member to the ER!

Years ago, my minivan could practically drive itself to my local ER - even in the middle of the night. However, now our hospital has been rebuilt. I just had to stop and think - where is the new entrance to the ER? I realized it's on a different side of the hospital now, so how do I get there? One of the roads near the new ER entrance is a one-way road now. Now how do I get there? Do my adult kids know where the new ER entrance is and how to get there from their apartments?

It would be helpful to ask yourself the same questions: what hospital would I go to in an asthma emergency? Does insurance cover it? Where is the ER entrance? What's the best route to get there? Knowing this ahead of time could help save a life.

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