HYB Series PART 2: Are Your Children “Human Petri Dishes?” Consequences of Growing Up Asthmatic
Posted by Dr. Lori Arnold
HUMAN PETRI DISHES?
I think it is time you got to know me a little better. From the outside, you see a happy and vibrant woman with an infectious, and very toothy smile. I exude the picture of health. If you’ve followed my blogs through my “fitness journey,” you are familiar with some of the health issues that plagued me 2 years ago, prompting me to restore my physical strength and physique. But, that was just a tiny snippet of my story. Through the series I will be posting over the next few weeks you will learn the reason WHY I can personally relate to many of the disheartening stories of illness I hear every day related to medical mishaps and subsequent long-term bodily damage.
Like many children, from a very early age I was exposed to an onslaught of pharmaceutical drugs. As most confused, stressed out and fearful parents would do, my parents placed all of their faith and trust in all of the medical diagnoses and treatments I was given – after all, the doctors are the “experts” in medicine. I know my pediatrician was doing his best and with every new prescription written, he hoped he was supplying the “cure” I desperately needed for my symptoms; unfortunately, the treatments piled up. As is the case with many “sickly” young children, I was quickly becoming a HUMAN PETRI DISH for the pharmaceutical industry. Each passing year, drug after drug was prescribed for every new symptom I was experiencing. Maybe it was an oversight, but not once was the safety of these treatments questioned with each new chemical introduction into my frail and tiny body. Was there even a second thought given to the possibility of any long-lasting detrimental side effects that could surface negatively later in life? I don’t have the answers to those questions, and I will never know. Many questions remain unanswered, but in Paul Harvey’s words, “It is time for the Rest Of The Story.”
I am a small town North Dakota girl born and raised in very rural farming and ranching communities. When I was 5 years old, my family moved to the southwestern corner of the state to Hettinger, population 1500. If you know North Dakota, at least the way it used to be, farming is THE way of life. Hettinger was, and still is, a one traffic light town with a cautionary flashing signal prompting you to slow your horses down to 25 miles per hour as you are quickly passing through on Highway 12. It was the 1970s, and the cigarette industry did an incredible job of painting a picture that smoking was the “cool and vogue” thing to do. Joe Cool the Camel and the Marlboro Man surfaced, and all the glamorous ads showcased sleek, successful and beautiful young men and women happily puffing on their cigarettes. It sounds so cliché to say it, but it really was the “it-thing” to do. Unfortunately, my parents fell prey to the propaganda and partook in the trend – meaning, they both smoked. During the same time, the dangerous adverse effects from smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke were virtually unknown, and if the tobacco industry was aware of the situation they were covering it up. As a matter of fact, I still remember when smoking was allowed in clinic and hospital waiting rooms. I have a very vivid recollection of waiting for an x-ray, surrounded by many sick patients who were coughing and could barely breath — simultaneously puffing away on their cigarettes, surrounding themselves and others with a hazy smoke plume.
The combination of being exposed to a very “allergic” environment and a potential genetic predisposition resulted in a diagnosis of asthma and severe environmental allergies at the age of 6. Soon after diagnosis, my minor shortness of breath quickly morphed into severe bronchial restriction, chest tightening, labored wheezing and excessive coughing. I became a very nervous and anxious child as I was consumed with never-ending fear that I would stop breathing at any moment. Unless you’ve ever experienced an asthma attack, it is difficult comprehend the sensation of your airways slamming shut, and the intense panic, fear and terror you feel as you struggle and gasp for each tiny breath of air. As you would assume, medication is a necessity for this condition. The late 1970s and early 1980s had little to offer in effective medications for severe asthmatics because asthma was not that prevalent; therefore pharmaceutical innovations were not a target in that medical arena. Focus shifted in the late 1980s and early 1990s as we witnessed an unprecedented rise in asthma prevalence. Researchers revealed that asthma was not just a disease that constricted the lungs (bronchoconstriction), but also caused chronic lung inflammation. Basically, asthma is a disease of swelling and tightening of the lungs. Traditional asthma treatment for airway tightening consisted of daily medication like theophylline and albuterol; however, inflammation was only treated with oral steroid bursts to quell acute asthma attacks. The use of inhaled steroids had not become standard practice.
My daily regimen included oral theophylline and an albuterol inhaler to treat my airway reactivity and tightening. During hospitalizations, which happened frequently, I would get additional intravenous aminophylline. The medications were atrocious stimulants! My petite body twitched like a Parkinson patient, and my hands shook so intensely I could barely hold a pencil to write. A full night’s sleep was a rare occurrence because of the intense night sweats and terrifying nightmares I suffered. In school, I felt like an outcast and was painfully shy and self-conscious, constantly obsessing that my classmates thought I was a freak. My eyes were bloodshot, I had dark puffy circles around my eyes, and my face was red, irritated and swollen. All of these physical manifestations were just some of the uncomfortable side effects of the drug therapy.
Like a credit card ad that recites “Don’t Leave Home Without It,” my albuterol inhaler became my “safety blanket” that I always carried with me. I was completely dependent on, or more accurately addicted to, my “rescue” inhaler. I became the “nerdy weakling kid” with the funny-looking fanny pack of asthma tools — inhaler, spacer and peak-flow meter. I topped the list of absenteeism by missing more days of school than any of my classmates due to the multiple hospitalizations, frequent viral and bacterial sinus and lung infections and sometimes just general sick days caused by the malaise I suffered from countless sleepless nights. I became oblivious to of the number of times I was forced to take high dose steroids, like prednisone and Medrol-Dosepaks, to quell the inflammation in my lungs. Some of these steroid “bursts” lasted longer than 30 days. Steroids are wrought with nasty side effects including “moon face,” water retention, increased stimulation with added difficulty concentrating, and dark and puffy eyes. It was exhausting being sick all of the time, for me, my parents and even my doctors. Maybe it was an act of desperation after using up all other options, or to prevent yet another hospital admission, my defeated docs would pen another prescription for additional rounds of antibiotics – whether warranted or not. I can’t fault any of them, as I really do believe they did the best they could with the knowledge and science they had available to them. Like a leaky water faucet, my nose dripped nonstop. I had annoying sneezing fits, where I would sneeze 8 or more times in a row with such intense force I thought I would blow my eyeball out of its socket! Some classmates carried those cute little tissue packs to classes — I carried the industrial family-sized tissue box. I was even tested for cystic fibrosis at 11 years old, due to the increasing severity of asthma symptoms and frequent (4-6 times a year) hospitalizations.
I can’t fathom the heartache, pain, stress and financial burden that I must have inflicted on my parents to have to emotionally cope with a sickly child. It must have broken their hearts and made them feel incredibly helpless because they couldn’t alleviate my suffering and make the illness go away. On top of everything else, after school every Monday, Wednesday and Friday my mother had to haul me to the clinic for multiple allergy shots. Even though they rotated injection sites, my arms would still swell into a goose “egg” as my body reacted with an inflammatory cascade from the allergen insult. I cried continuously, begging my mother, “PLEASE don’t make me go back to the clinic for these horrible shots.”
My teens ushered in a new set of ailments with the onset of menarche. I soon developed irregular menstruation cycles coupled with intense and painful cramping. Unfortunately, I was also plagued with severe hormonal cystic acne, accompanied with facial inflammation and irritation. Once more, these new health conditions led to subsequent trips back and forth to the clinic. At 16 years old I was placed on oral contraceptives to stabilize my menstrual patterns. I was prescribed Ortho-Tricyclen for the menstrual issues, and gained the additional bonus of reducing the severity and frequency of acne flare-ups.
As you can see, before I turned 20, I was subjected to dozens of chemical drug insults. This bombardment eventually became a “snowball effect” that would eventually crash down on me. Why did I go into so much detail? For those of you who have small children, this is a snapshot of the life your child may lead if they continue on a road of multiple courses of drug treatment. Stay tuned for the next part of the series where you will see what happens in the next decades of my life. You will also be walked through how to apply a holistic approach to YOUR health. Using myself as an example, you may be able to better identify your own issues and pinpoint similar situations in order to learn to correct the problem before it gets out of control. Like a detective, you will put on YOUR investigative hat and analyze trends and patterns that can manifest into harmful situations. While utilizing the holistic approach to healing, we will focus on key elements that increase your risk of negative health issues. These areas of interest we will target from a functional medicine perspective we will include: Toxins, Medications, Diet and Nutrition, and Exercise.
Be sure to come back for Heal Yourself Beautiful: Part 3!