Debi Kendrick delivered her son to school, then reluctantly headed for work. Her family had spent the previous night in the emergency room because Zak's airways were restricted and his air intake had dropped to dangerously low levels. After too much medication, Zak felt shaky, tired, and jittery—and his lips began to turn blue. This morning Zak felt better, but he was still coughing and experiencing shortness of breath.
Debi asked the school administration if she could wait in the nurse's office in case Zak's asthma worsened, but the administration said no, so she drove to her office, praying her son would be all right.
As she settled into her cubicle, Debi noticed the blinking message light on her office phone. She hit the button and the voice of Zak's pediatrician boomed. He demanded Zak be brought in immediately for monitoring. Debi's stomach churned. Had she made the wrong decision?
Then the school nurse called, worried that due to state guidelines she could not be close enough to Zak during the standardized tests he was taking that day to help him in case he had an attack. Debi leaned back in her chair and listened to the assistant principal's message. Zak's coughing was a major distraction to other students, and the school did not have the staff to move him into a room alone. Debi knew then that she should have stayed.
Finally, Zak's voice spoke from Debi's voicemail. "Mom, it's me. I know I can take this test fast. Then you can pick me up, and we can go to the doctor's office." His calm voice sounded mature beyond his years.
Like five million other American children, according to statistics from the Asthma and Allergy Federation of America (AAFA), Zak suffers from asthma. Diagnosed before his first birthday, he has experienced one battle after another in his struggle to breathe easy and be a normal child.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
Dr. William Neaville, Pediatric Allergy and Asthma Specialist at Children's Medical Center in Dallas, describes asthma as a chronic disease with no known cure. Asthma is also known as reactive airway disease, a condition in which sufferers experience inflamed airways. Because of the inflammation, airways are more sensitive than normal, causing a greater potential for irritation. Obstruction of airflow occurs when muscles around airways tighten, and often mucus production increases. These problems combine to restrict airflow to the lungs, resulting in the body not receiving enough air to function properly. During an asthma attack, a person experiences suffocation. According to the AAFA, asthma claims nearly 5,000 lives annually.
What causes asthma? Approximately 40 percent of children with asthmatic parents will develop the condition. "Other factors, such as delayed lung development, may also be involved," according to Dr. Neaville. "Some infants may be diagnosed as asthmatic if they experience recurrent wheezing, even if the wheezing is due to a viral infection." Asthma can be mild or severe and is usually affected by environmental triggers such as pet dander, smoke, seasonal allergies, stress, exercise, or air pollution.
"Asthma symptoms include wheezing, coughing, tightness in the chest, and shortness of breath," Dr. Neaville explains. "The average age for diagnosis is two years, and some children may grow out of it."