Thirty years ago on January 8 I traveled with my mom on a three hour United flight from Manistee, Michigan, to Denver, Colorado. The mission was to take me to the asthma hospital. An edited version of my story was published at healthcentral.com/asthma today. Here is the unedited version.
On January 9, 1985, I was admitted to National Jewish Hospital/ National Asthma Center (NJH/NAC). This was where the best asthma experts in the world worked at that time, and they were supposed to finally get my asthma controlled. I was 15-years-old.
To put in in perspective how bad my asthma had become, I made eleven emergency room visits for asthma in 1984, and was admitted to the hospital four times. This does not include the many unscheduled visits to Dr. Oliver’s office. It does not include the days I couldn't breathe and just dealt with it by puffing on my inhaler until it was empty.
My doctors and parents feared for my life. I, on the other hand, did not worry about it. I had lived with the asthma beast my entire life, so to me it was just another minor detail of life to be dealt with.
I was such a mess that doctor Oliver, and all the other doctors who took care of me, were at a loss what to do. So doctor Oliver and my parents made the difficult decision to have me admitted to NJH/NAC.
While I took my asthma in stride, Dr. Oliver told my parents that they were going to teach me a whole new way of life.
The morning I walked with my mom onto the campus my lips were blue. I met my counselor in the business office, and he immediately walked me up to 7-Goodman, where kids ages 13-18 were housed. This would be my new home.
When the nurses saw me they immediately said, “This boy is a Code Blue!”
“Oh, I’m fine,” I said.
“No you are not,” said the nurse. “You are really bad.”
They made me sit in a chair next to a nebulizer, and they made me take a breathing treatment. Then they called Dr. Mitchell, who assessed me right away, and ordered more medicine to help me breathe better.
The asthma experts had a major challenge on their hands, but they had seen it in nearly all of the 20 kids already admitted to the unit. The beast that is asthma gripped my lungs, and it affected my head as well as my lungs.
Dr. Mitchell saw me every day, and the nurses watched me closely. For the first two weeks one test after another was performed on me. I was poked and prodded more than ever before or since. I blew into spirometers until I felt like a rat in a lab.
But then it got better. Once the initial testing was done, and once my asthma was under control, the asthma hospital was more like a home than a hospital. In fact, the only thing that made it like a hospital is that the nurses and doctors wore stethoscopes.
I met the other kids, and they all had asthma just like me. We shared our stories. We went to school during weekdays. In the evenings we played games or watched movies. On the weekends we went on field trips to malls and museums and amusement parks. On one field trip we visited an old gold mining town, and on another we hiked trails in the Rocky Mountains.
Most important, we had fun like normal kids.
But we also learned about our disease. We learned about asthma causes and triggers. We learned everything doctors knew about asthma medicine. We learned about asthma action plans, about asthma triggers, and about early warning signs. We learned how to prevent and treat asthma.
Bad asthma kept us from learning some of the skills that healthy kids learn. So we saw counselors, psychologists, occupational therapists and physical therapists. Their goal was to help us cope with the world when we return home with controlled asthma.
Another very important thing inculcated into our heads was the importance of eating healthy and exercising. A good diet gives you the nutrients you need, and exercise makes your heart and lungs strong so can breathe easy.
So every weekday we walked to the gym or pool and participated in some sort of aerobic activity. When that was done we played games, such as basketball or dodge ball or open swim.
Yet every day I saw Dr. Mitchell, and she tweaked my medicine ever so slightly until I was on the perfect medicine regime for controlling and treating my own asthma.
It took a long time to fix me. While I was told it would be about 6-8 weeks, I was discharged on July 14, 1985. I was admitted for six months.
Asthma hospitals first started popping up in the 1930s. The one in Denver started as a tuberculosis hospital in the late 19th century, only to be converted to an asthma hospital. It was a great idea for it's time, especially when regional physicians were unable to help their asthmatic patients.
Back in 1985 regional physicians, like Dr. Oliver, did not have access to the same asthma wisdom the asthma experts at NJH/NAC had. This is what made such hospitals so important to helping asthmatic kids become normal again.
Yet it was also about this time that efforts were being made to educate regional physicians on how to help their asthmatic kids. By 1992 they were so much better equipped that the asthma hospital closed that inpatient children's ward.
So no longer does 7-Goodman exist. However, the asthma hospital still exists. Today it is called National Jewish Hospital, and they still have a really nice children's outpatient program for those who need the help.
On January 8, 1985, I needed their help and they succeeded at helping me to become a normal person. My experience there was a very unique one, and the lessons I learned have benefited me in a big way. It's hard to believe that was thirty years ago.