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By Michael Jacobs
Arizona Daily Wildcat
November 20, 1997

Asthma awareness helps patients breathe easier

In the dark hours of a crisp Connecticut morning, 20-year-old Brenda Smith experienced a fierce struggle for her own continued existence.

"I couldn't take in any air at all, but managed to choke out some relevant information to the 911 operator," Smith said of the massive asthma attack that overcame her that morning.

"I passed out, woke up in the hospital and remember a nurse saying, 'You're lucky to be here. Another five minutes and we wouldn't have been able to get you back,'" she added.

Smith, now a University of Arizona chemistry graduate student, suffers from asthma, a disease that plagues more than 15 million Americans.

Asthma death rates have exploded exponentially during the last six years in part due to unawareness, said Dr. Leonard Schultz, a local physician.

"If we could educate people, then we could prevent asthma," said Schultz, a Tucson asthma specialist.

Smith described her asthma attacks as "lucid touches with death."

"It's like being held under water and breathing through a straw except there's no water and no one's holding you," said Smith.

"As a child, it was hard not to be able to run, jump and play like a normal breathing child; it was very sobering," Smith recalled.

Asthma, an autoimmune inflammatory disease causes the bronchiole tubes to severely swell, Schultz said. These smooth muscles line the lungs' air passages.

Asthmatic attacks are triggered by the hypersensitivity of the airways to various airborne hazards. Irritants like smoke, dust, pollutants, animal scents, exercise, cold air, pollens and industrial byproducts can cause asthma attacks.

Schultz believes affected smooth muscle surfaces are a genetically related disorder compounded by environmental aspects.

"If your parents have allergies or asthma, then you are more susceptible to getting asthma. Heavy exposure to airborne hazards in infancy can also cause infants to contract asthma at a higher rate," Schultz said.

Schultz said patients underestimate the potency of asthma because they are ignorant to possible prevention options.

"The name of the game is compliance," Schultz said. "If we could get compliance, then we could weather the storm."

Schultz said he tries to explain asthma to patients and set out goals to minimize acute asthma episodes, minimize hypersecretion of mucous and constriction of the muscles.

"The mainstay of asthma therapy are inhaled steroids, which address the inflammation," he said. "But steroids administered directly into the bloodstream cause a greater span of side effects."

Heightened episodes of asthma can lead to kidney failure, blindness, brittle bones and mood disruptions- all associated with the imbalance of body hormones.

Steroid inhalers, only one type of medication, can cost between $40 and 50 a month.

"We fear that asthma mortality rates might rise, because people cannot afford the medication," said Schultz. "Asthma is a controllable disease, but not a curable disease."

Tucson offers only one asthma control center, which provides insurance for asthmatics.

"We take medicare individuals, and have had tons of UA students over the years," said Barbara Antonini, assistant director of the Asthma Foundation of Southern Arizona.

"Right now we have 110 patients that are accepted with documentation of their income and expenses. We have denied only three people over the years."

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