On January 4, 1984, I celebrated my 14th birthday playing football under the warm Florida sun. The next day, on the way back to Michigan, the beast that is asthma grabbed my lungs, gripping them hard.
I wrote about what happened next in a letter to my grandma Frea dated March 1984:
"On the way back from Florida I felt bad. I was wheezing and I simply couldn't breathe anymore. Dad stopped in Jacksonville, Indiana for the night and decided I must have been allergic to the coconuts he stashed under the seats. I was also low on Alupent.I watched the game from my hospital room with dad. While my chest was tight, the Tigers walloped KC and just the thought of that kept my mind off the beast, and my spirits high.
"I got so bad that at 8:00 dad took me to the hospital. I got an IV for an hour, aSusphrin shot, oxygen, and other medications I cannot name. I was there for four hours. I was well the next day, but after we got home and I was getting ready for bed. I gradually got worse. Again we went to the hospital at 8 p.m.
"Then I suffered for a few days. I didn't want to go back to the hospital. I was afraid if I did they would keep me. Finally I got so bad I had to tell mom, and she took me to see doctor Olivia. He gave me some meds, and sent me back home.
"I went to the hospital Sunday, Feb. 5, and I was treated by a nurse (I bet I was treated by an RT too). I got worse in the hospital. Dr. Olivia came in and said he figured I had pure asthma because I had no signs of a cold or anything like that. He put me on some new meds and almost kept me. I ended up going home that night.
"Well, that lasted until Feb. 8. I could breathe fine I thought -- just coughing. Mom called
Dr. Olivia. He told mom to take me to the hospital for a breathing treatments twice daily. Mom decided it would be easier if I just stayed over night.
"On the way to the hospital we ate lunch at a local restaurant, and I could hardly breathe when I was there. It got worse that day, and I ended up staying seven nights in the hospital. I got better every day I was there.
"The first night, though, I had a bad night. I was up over 20 times with asthma."
I was re-admitted later that month, this time my stay was five days.
Somehow I managed to stay out of trouble as the pollen season arrived. Then, on August
18, my good fortune ran out: the beast returned. It stood over me like an invisible elephant crushing my chest. I cried to dad, and he took me back to the ER for another Susphrin.
Two days later the beast was standing over me again, but this time my doctor was afraid to let me go home. He kept me locked up in a hospital room where the beast couldn't find me.
On October 2 I was looking forward to watching the Tigers play the Kansas City Royals. Before the game I decided to rummage through a trunk in the basement for a Halloween mask. There, amid the dust mites, was the beast.
Dad rushed me to the ER. "Doc," I grunted, "I either... need to be... sent home… or admitted... by seven, because.. I'm not missing the game."
The next day I felt fine. I couldn't wait for doctor Oliver to come in and tell me I could go home. My roommate was a cool kid named Mike. He was also 14. I figured he was worse off than me because he couldn't get out of bed. His leg was broken and it was up in a sling.
We made a deal that I would control the TV clicker until noon, and then it was his turn. A grumpy old lady nurse came in to check on us, and as soon as she was gone I whipped the remote to him. We laughed.
We continued laughing as he flipped through the channels, finally landing on what was a cool movie called "Porkies." Not a kid movie, but there's "naked girls in it," Mike said.
Grumpy nurse poked her head in, and Mickey quickly turned the channel. Two boys snickered.
"What's going on in here?" she grunted.
"Nothing," we said in unison, snickering.
Grumpy nurse left to irritate some other patient, and Porkies made its way back to the screen.
Meantime, I had no idea mom was on the phone with Dr. Oliver discussing what should be done with me. While I was coping, they were worried.
On Oct.26 and Nov. 8 dad drove me back to the ER for quick visits. But the next day I was admitted yet again for two nights. "Oh, well," I wrote in my diary, "I can handle it. At least I have a good excuse not to do homework."
On November 25 dad was driving us back from a Thanksgiving vacation, and once again I lost my breath in the van. In my diary I wrote:
"This was a frustrating visit for me. The stupid doctor wouldn't give me the Susphrin shot until dad finally convinced him that's the only thing that ever worked for me. After several hours of bonding with dad, I was released. We arrived home late."
Then, a few days later after school, I sat at the kitchen bar with mom and my brother David. Mom said, "What do you think about going to a hospital just for asthmatic kids like you?"
"Um, I don't know," I said.
David said, "Wow, that would be really cool. It would be like going to camp."
"Exactly," mom said.
"How long would I have to be there?" I looked at mom, hoping she'd say a week or less.
"Well," she said, "the doctors say it would ONLY be 6-8 weeks."
"That long? Why would it be that long?"
"Dad and I heard a lot of good things about this place," mom said, "This is the number one hospital for asthma in the world, and you should be honored that they want you as a patient."
"Okay, let me think about it." I hopped off my chair and started for the living room.
"Rick, you have to do this," David said. "It's a once in a lifetime opportunity."
I paced around a few minutes, pondering hard. I had this eerie feeling whatever decision I made would be final. Then a thought occurred to me: What if I say no and the opportunity is lost forever?
"Mom," I said, walking into the kitchen. "I've decided I'll do it."
Mom wasted no time reaching for the phone.
I wrote in my diary once that I was having second thoughts -- just once. But that was before I was rushed to the ER twice the first week of January, 2005, for a Susphrine shot.
"Well, I would normally admit him," Dr. Oliver said the next day after I was given a Susphrine shot on the third straight day, "But since he's going to Denver in a few days, I guess I'll let you take him home."
On January 8, 1985 I boarded a plane to Denver. When I arrived at my new home the next day, the nurses called a code blue on me.
To be continued...