Growing up, I always wanted to be an athlete. It was the thing with which I identified most in the world. In middle school that shifted a bit to acting, but I still wanted to find myself on the baseball diamond. By the time I was in high school my sport was theatre and (gulp) dance.
Despite trading in my changeup for a pivot turn, I was still doing my best to perform at the highest level I could. Unfortunately, this was always a challenge for me. Not because I wasn’t the best. I mean, I wasn’t anywhere close to the best at any of those things, but that’s not the point. It was a challenge because of that little bit of something I was born with. Underdeveloped lungs.
Title aside, you probably didn’t see that one coming! I spent the better part of my first year on this planet with my best friends being an oxygen tank and some tubes in my nose. Lucky to survive year one, I spend the next handful of years seemingly “normal”. Until I was about seven years old, when I suddenly ran into an issue that made no sense to my tiny little mind.
I couldn’t breathe and I didn’t know what to do.
After the initial panic, my mom called my dad, who happened to be a ways away from home at a family member’s funeral (if I remember correctly). He rushed home, and we went to the hospital to have me checked out. They had me competing in the Olympics of medical tests. Blood pressure sleeves, peak flow meters, and slow meditative breaths took over my night. Thankfully, it was nothing too serious. But I found out I had something that would likely stay with me for most, if not the rest, of my life. I have asthma. Most of the time it’s fine. But, every now and then, it sucks.
I was just getting into baseball and I was so excited to be playing in Little League. My dream was to help my team to Williamsport, PA and win the Little League World Series. Then I’d be able to be one of those athletes profiled after winning the World Series as a MLB star who had a history of lifting trophies.
It was a weird time. I was learning how to point my finger at my target as I released a throw, but also the difference between my Flovent and my Albuterol. It’s basically that Flovent was my Starting Pitcher, and Albuterol was my bullpen. I needed to take the Flovent every day, and only use Albuterol when I needed it. It was for emergency only, and got me out of some serious jams. Relief, if you will.
Now, you’d think, breathing is probably important for athletes.
And you’re right. It is. It took me a while to get here, but that’s my point. Roughly 1 in 13 people in America have asthma. That’s more than 25 million people. So, let’s think about that. In a country where healthcare is a privilege, in theory, you’re likely to have one person on a basketball team with asthma. One or two players on your favorite MLB team would be asthmatic. About four or five in football. You get the picture.
So, if we expect the youth of America to grow up into the leaders and entertainers of the future, we need to find a way to safely, and healthily, guide their growth. But that becomes difficult if you’re not wealthy or employed somewhere that provides insurance.
Healthcare in the United States is similar to the way youth soccer is currently set up. It technically exists everywhere, but to get the best coverage you need to pay a premium. And that is unlikely to happen in underprivileged or less wealthy areas. Somehow, people don’t understand that reality, despite others explaining it to them until they are blue in the face. I’ve been there and, trust me, it’s not fun.
It might be time to change the way we attack the issue.
Our Editor-in-Chief, Justin Colombo, loves to use this analogy: You have an idea, which is fine, but until you turn it 15 degrees, it’s just an idea. It’s after that slight shift that you find your perspective, and it’s worth reading.
Perhaps developing the next great generation of athletes could provide that. However, empathy is apparently not as common as we’d hope in this country. What if, instead of saying “we need healthcare for all” we say “healthcare for all will give us the next LeBron James or Serena Williams or Tom Brady”. Of course, that only works if we can put faces to names of stars who faced asthma head on.
David Beckham was famously seen with an inhaler when playing for the LA Galaxy, then revealing that it was something he had been dealing with for a while. He hasn’t hidden it, and since that image he has talked more about it, particularly around how managing his diet helps his airways.
Justine Henin was diagnosed with asthma in 2007, at the age of 25. The Belgian tennis star ran into some issues at the US Open, and was public about her concerns with playing in Beijing at the 2008 Olympic games due to the air quality.
Jerome Bettis was diagnosed with asthma when he was 15 years old. When you’re a teenage athlete, that news can be crushing. But “The Bus” and his parents took all the proper steps to keep his engine in check, and he became an absolute legend, helping lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to a championship in Super Bowl XL.
Control, control, control
With asthma comes a slew of challenges a person needs to face. For me, I need to be on a daily inhaler and have a rescue inhaler just in case. But if I don’t have that inhaler on me the moment tightness hits, my anxiety hops into the driver’s seat. That perpetuates the problem.
Instead of allowing that car to veer out of control, you need to take the proper pit stops. First and foremost, it’s all about breath control. Breathing is a natural cycle, which is obviously necessary for the body, so sometimes you need to approach it like the very few NASCAR races I’ve seen. Bring the awareness to the breath for a few laps. Then, once you’ve steadied and helped calm your mind, you can leave it on in the background and move on to something else.
It’s easy to say now, because I’m a 33-year old man who has dealt with this disease for over two decades. I’ve had my time in therapy and meditation doing breathing exercises. They work. But for a kid newly trying to cope but also doing sprints at practice? It’s likely harder to grasp.
Interestingly, the very thing that induces asthmatic symptoms are what can help solve them. I’ve never been much of a runner. Sure, there are a slew of reasons for that. But laziness aside, it was always hard for me to get comfortable with breath control. However ,understanding that while knowing my body’s limits, is what helped me curb my asthma for many years. Expanding my lung capacity helped me control my breathing problem. Wild concept.
Raising awareness and providing the proper care
Asthma attacks are scary. Imagine being in a room, the walls closing in, the ceiling dropping, and floor rising. Suddenly, that’s all you can focus on. The impending doom. Of course that’s the initial reaction.
Helping to teach one how to understand their body, do their best to take deep breaths, and create a routine for themselves is incredibly important. There is not a one size fits all approach, but the general concept can work for just about anyone. And, of course, access to an inhaler is paramount.
It’s one thing to do sprints and need to catch your breath. It’s another to do sprints and hear your lungs whistling. We need to push ourselves, but also know our limits.
And the fact that not everyone out there has access to that education, or a life saving puffer, is a terrifying thing. Let’s work to bring asthma, among other diseases, to the forefront of conversation. You can still compete, be an athlete, achieve your dreams of raising that World Series trophy. But you may need some help along the way.
To learn more about asthma and its causes, you check out info from the CDC here.
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