Working a Dream With Asthma
While in college, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity of working a dream job; a rock climbing route setter. Climbing is one of my biggest passions and to be paid to climb was a dream come true! The job would best be described as a creative construction position, where the goal is to create a unique, fun and safe climbing experience for people coming into the gym. The problem I did not foresee: my lungs spending so much time in the gym and the impact it would have on my asthma.
Too much of a good thing?
Before I started working as a "setter" (we call it for short), I was spending about 3-4 days a week in the climbing gym; climbing and training for about 2 hours each. Never did I encounter an issue with my asthma, unless I was recovering from bronchitis or the chest colds that bog us asthmatics down. My asthma is not usually exercise induced but certainly can be if the conditions are right... or wrong.
When I started setting routes, that 3-4 days turned into 5-6 days a week; most days spending an average of 8 hours in the gym. Which sounded great at first, I loved getting paid to be in my happy place! Unfortunately, my happy place had more triggers than I thought. After the first month, I was coming home wheezing every day, even on the days I wasn’t working. Being at the gym so much become too much of a good thing…quickly.
Asthma triggers at my workplace, the gym
In the gym, I wasn't just creating movement and climbing, I was also working with dust and chalk constantly. The chalk never bothered me much. I climb out doors often where the fresh air is great, and unless the gym was really crowded or kids were playing and making chalk clouds, I never had an issue. When I was exposed to it consistently, for long consecutive days, it became a terrible trigger.
I was working a dream job, doing what I love all day and it hardly felt like work. My asthma, on the other hand, was the worst it had been in years and was only getting worse. To add to the cons-list of the job: being constantly flared and constantly climbing was exhausting, impacting my attention in lectures while at school. I had an internal conflict and needed a resolution quick.
I was frustrated, unable to accept that my asthma was going to keep me from working a fun job that brought me so much intrinsic and extrinsic reward. So, I consulted my doctor and we made a new management program to keep me working this job that made me happy and make my lungs happy too.
My solutions and tips for dealing with asthma at work
- I hydrate well, drinking lots of water keeps me awake and feeling open.
- I eat my breakfast outside in the fresh air. Luckily my triggers aren’t common outside, unless in the desert; it’s the dust that gets me most.
- I make sure I have my rescue inhaler with me.
- I wear a mask when in dustier areas and try to avoid the tasks that flared my asthma; like chalking holds.
- It can take some communication with the other setters to accommodate a system that would keep my lungs happy. I finish securing their holds and they chalk mine for me. That way, the work get’s done quickly and my lungs are spared the trigger that gets them the most.
- I always have my rescue inhaler within reach. I've needed to use it on occasion.
- I spend time doing yoga and breathing exercises that I have found so help my lungs.
- I spend time in nurturing environments, typically outside.
- I rehydrate more! Dehydration always makes my flares worse.
- I remind myself how thankful I am to have the opportunity I do.
It was, and still is, a difficult environment to manage my asthma in. Route setting has since become a passion of mine, equal to my passion for climbing and public health. It’s always been a challenge to balance the health of my lungs with everyday life. I didn't want my asthma to stop me from working this job that I was passionate about. So I made the decision to work through it and figure out a way. It took some trial and error, some outside advice and some tenaciousness. I still have flares from setting, but I still love it more each day and I manage.
Many of us asthmatics face difficult decisions and situations, especially in our workplaces. Do we sacrifice a passion for our illness, or do we suffer because of our passion? I’d propose that there is another option, a more difficult option, a compromise. Take a step back and think about the direct triggers and find a way to prepare yourself to handle those triggers. Although it can be difficult to communicate your asthma to others; it's through communication and honesty that we can find synergy in out environments. I will keep setting, keep climbing and keep adapting to my asthmas ever-changing personality.
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