Three years ago, I stood in the White House with seven other women from the Women's Sports Foundation waiting to meet First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Next to me was Nancy Hogshead, the former champion Olympic swimmer, who noticed that I didn't seem my usual cheerful self, particularly considering the circumstances. She was right. Recovering from my second bout of pneumonia that year, I had to admit that I felt spent, physically and emotionally.
"I know this may sound strange," Nancy said, "but have you ever been tested for asthma?"
Asthma? It was the last thing I would have thought of, but Nancy explained that she had been diagnosed several years earlier with exercise-induced asthma. The diagnosis led to treatment that changed her life. But me? Asthma? Never. Impossible.
But at Nancy's insistence, as soon as I returned from Washington, I made an appointment with Dr. Robert Eitches at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He's an allergist and an asthma specialist who was very familiar with the exercise-induced asthma syndrome. After taking a brief history, he said, "I bet your family thinks you're crazy when you're out at a restaurant, always changing tables so you're not too near to the vents." Well, it never seemed like a big deal to me, but he was right. "And in your car, I'd bet that you're always fiddling with the temperature, trying to get it just right." Who was this guy, Kreskin? He was two for two and winning all bets.
For several years, I'd been annoyingly sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity--both of which seemed to affect my lungs, making it difficult to breathe. And without even looking, I can pinpoint an air vent within 3 feet of its location in any room, because blowing air also hinders my ability to breathe. As it turns out, all of these are major indicators of asthma.
In fact, asthma is one of this country's major health concerns. By some estimates, at least 5% of Americans already have had or will suffer asthmatic symptoms. The symptoms include wheezing, shortness of breath, coughing and a tightness in the chest that seems as though Jesse "The Body" Ventura is sitting on your lungs. No wonder. During an asthma attack, the airways in the lungs severely constrict, so not enough air gets through. What creates an attack is a virtually endless array of triggers: from changes in the weather to seasonal allergies, from emotional distress to air pollution, from smoke to a lung infection.
For years, asthma was considered primarily a childhood disease, in that if you didn't have it as a kid, you were safe. But asthma can and does strike adults. Like me. And ironically, another major cause of asthma in adulthood is exercise.
Dr. Eitches and I traced my most recent episode of asthma to a week in Sun Valley, when I'd done a great deal of extraordinarily strenuous cross-country skiing. My competitive side had me skiing stride for stride with an Olympic biathlete, when I probably should have been in a yurt sipping hot cocoa. Near the end of the week, I tried to do some exploring on snowshoes, and after only a few minutes couldn't catch my breath. As the mucus began forming, I felt like my lungs were being crushed. I figured I was catching a cold. Of course, I had figured wrong.
Weakened by asthma that I didn't even know I had, my lungs were susceptible to a secondary infection--pneumonia. And when I began recovering from that, I weakened my system again by exercising in very dry air, brought on by a Santa Ana condition at home. Thus began a maddening and debilitating cycle of asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, back to good health, then exercise, asthma . . . it was, as Nancy perceived, a cycle of despair.
The good news about most cases of asthma is that when it is properly diagnosed, there are treatments that can restore your life. The bad news is that when they're not feeling sick, many people with asthma ignore the preventive steps.
Sensing, perhaps, that I would be reluctant to regularly use the inhaler he prescribed for me, Dr. Eitches explained that most people put it away as soon as they feel better. With that old elasticity back in their lungs, they believe the inhaler has done its job. Then an acute episode sends them panting back to the inhaler for relief. Me, I'm supposed to take two puffs each morning, whether or not I feel asthmatic, as a way of keeping the attacks at bay.
I'm also supposed to avoid over-exercising outdoors, especially when it's extremely cold or dry. This time of year, with many of us leaving the warm air of Southern California and heading to the snow, it's especially important to look for danger signs of asthma.
As a preventive measure, in cold climates I warm up inside for an extended period before skiing or doing any outdoor exercise. I'm also careful to wrap a scarf or muffler around my mouth and nose. And I'm now willing to perform activities like skiing or skating at less than full throttle.