Childhood Asthma and Its Discontents

It’s bad enough when you have asthma as a child. It’s much worse when you have terrified, fearful, and hysterical parents who respond by treating you like you’re damaged goods.

My childhood experience with asthma

From what I gather, I was born with asthma, probably hereditary since my mother had it, too, and I had two serious asthma attacks that landed me in the emergency room by the time I was two. My asthma quieted down when I got a little older, but I still remember having asthma episodes where I was wheezing. When this happened, I had to bend over a device that they called “the steamer” for hours, breathing in heavily and coughing.

I also periodically had to take bad-tasting, syrupy medicines. Since, at the age of seven or so, they didn’t think I would understand their real names, they just called them “the yellow,” “the green,” and “the red,” which I only took once in a while. Years later, I found out that the yellow was Tedral, an early anti-asthma medication that was so much of a downer that it had to contain an amphetamine as well; the green was Chlortrimeton, an anti-asthma medication; and the red was Achromycin, an antibiotic, which explains why I didn’t take it that often.

Sometime around 1960, at the age of eight, at my grandparents’ bungalow colony in Mount Beacon, I had a terrible asthma attack. I was taken away from the bungalow colony, where I was spending the summer. In the future, I would only be able to go up there on weekends, while my brother, who didn’t have asthma, was allowed to stay there much longer.

Seeing a pediatric allergist

Soon, I was sent to a pediatric allergist on the Grand Concourse, to see what I was allergic to. Now, there’s nothing terrible about seeing an allergist as such, but there certainly was something wrong with mine. He kept giving me skin tests, sometimes five or six at a time. Now, skin tests are an accepted medical procedure, but the way he did it was very painful. And after he did it, he smiled, said, “Ouch! That hurt!” and laughed. After the skin tests were over, he gave me weekly allergy shots, which were no less painful. He recommended that I go to a convalescent home, a suggestion that my parents, for once, had the good sense to refuse.

My interest in sports

He also told my parents that I should avoid participating in sports, especially basketball (although I remember arguing with him about it), and insisted that whenever I go to gym class, I hand the teacher a note saying I need to drop out when necessary. This killed any interest I had in sports and made me feel every more miserable.

It was probably a reasonable suggestion based on the medical knowledge of that time, but the way my allergist said it, without a hint of sympathy, made it seem like the voice of doom. And during those years, when I suggested to my mother that my regimen should be relaxed, my mother screamed, “YOU’LL have to go to the hospital, and WE’LL have to pay for it!”

Using handkerchiefs

Since I often had to cough up mucus or blow my nose, my parents insisted that I take a handkerchief to school. “Uh, uh, uh!” Mom sing-songed as I was preparing to leave the apartment. “Where’s your handkerchief?” So I had to keep taking the handkerchief. I had to fold over the usually-discolored mucus once I blew my nose, then open up the “hanky” and look for a clean spot when I had to blow my nose or cough again. It was embarrassing. By that point, Kleenex were beginning to be popular, and I asked my father to buy tissues instead so I wouldn’t have to deal with the awkward, unsanitary handkerchiefs. Without giving any reason, Dad refused.

The other kids weren’t any help, either. One day, after I had a coughing incident and had to use “the steamer,” the guy downstairs from me said, “Hey, I heard you making those disgusting noises last night! You better stop it, or I’ll kick your ass!” Another time, I was telling a different kid that I was told to drop out of any sports games when I felt out of breath. “You better not do that if we’re playing basketball together,” he answered, “or I’ll beat the shit out of you!”

My teenage years with asthma

By the age of 13 or so, my asthmatic episodes were becoming less frequent. I was still getting weekly allergy injections, although thankfully with a different doctor. Some of the kids in my junior high school were going to sleep-away camps in the summer. Although my brother was allowed to go, my parents flat-out refused to let me go as well. ‘You know what the doctor said,” Dad intoned. Years later, Mom said, “Well, maybe if we knew about asthma summer camps at the time, we could have sent you.” But by the time I was in my teens, the mid-sixties, asthma camps had been in existence for at least 20 years. All she would have needed to do was to ask the doctor.

I kept reminding my parents that the last time I’d gotten a thorough physical and evaluation was maybe five years ago, and that my allergist's findings at that time were certainly outdated by now, but they wouldn’t even listen.

When I was 15, a kid in my class invited me to play touch football. I made the mistake of telling my mother. She was incensed. “I’m going to stand across the street from the playground and make sure you don’t play!” she barked.

Preparing for college with asthma

By the time I was 17, my asthma had all but disappeared, and I was only taking my medications sporadically, although I was still going for monthly injections. Soon, it was time to think about college and fill out college applications. I definitely wanted to go to an out-of-town college, especially since the neighborhood we lived in was becoming rundown. My first choice was the State University of New York at Binghamton. My parents had their doubts. “What happens if you get sick up there?” they asked. I made some calls and found out that they had an infirmary. What’s more, the infirmary staff gave allergy shots for students who needed them. I promised that I would go there to take my injections, and at 18, I left home.

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