February 19, 2012

What You Don’t Know Can Kill You – a Tribute

What You Don’t Know Can Kill You – a Tribute

Now the fire rises
and offers a dozen, singing, deep-red
roses of flame. Then it settles
to quietude, or maybe gratitude, as it feeds
as we all do, as we must, upon the invisible gift:
our purest, sweet necessity: the air.
~ Mary Oliver

I have been trying to figure out this week how I might comment even briefly on the death of New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid. Shadid, on assignment in Syria, did not die at the hands of terrorists or caught in hostile crossfire – he died from an asthma attack. He was 43 years old.

I suppose it’s worth noting that I am 42. And, for those of you who have not read the blog, I have asthma.

There are times when we all have to think about our own mortality more than we want to. I was diagnosed with asthma in my 20s, but I have likely had it since childhood.  Asthma is scary. When you have an attack you lungs swell on the inside and it becomes hard to breathe  – a bit like drowning but not under the water. You often really do feel like you could die.

Here’s the thing. I have had plenty of brushes with death (I know that sounds melodramatic…). I was abandoned by guides in a remote area of northern Thailand, I’ve had one rather bad car accident, and I was held up at gunpoint. I have twice had anaphylaxis – a potentially deadly allergic reaction. And I have not died, not even once, even when I thought I might.

When you are diagnosed with asthma, it’s usually due to an acute attack. Mine landed me in an Emergency Room when I was a medical student. I was both comforted and reprimanded by an nice older physician. After an emergency treatment that restored by breathing to normal, he referred my to a specialist. He never once said This could have killed you.

I saw the specialist who explained asthma to me in meticulous detail (better than a text book). He talked to me about management, gave me my first prescription for an inhaler, gave me a lesson on how to use said inhaler. But he never, not once said You could die from this so pay attention.

In the 20 years since I have seen internists, and EENTs and, allergists, and pulmonologists. They have all had opinions about drugs and management and long-term strategies. Even as better and better drugs become available, and my disease is better understood, they all still remind you None of this takes the place of your rescue inhaler, but…

But they never remind you that you could die.

Anthony Shadid was my age. I have no idea how long he had had asthma. He had to be smart and very brave to do the job he was doing. And I bet the very last thing in the world he thought would kill him was asthma.

Probably like most of us, he carried his medication, but sometimes forgot it.  And maybe he sometimes ignored a little wheezing because, hey, that happens and it’s really not that bad. I am sure that, given his job, he was much much more afraid of this things outside himself that might result in his death, and not the one lurking inside.

So today, this post of for him and for others like me who need a reminder that, yeah, that can kill you. Frankly, we can all take a pause for a moment and remember that that simple act of breathing is precious and we should never ever take it for granted.



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1 Comment

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  1. Cal
    July 15, 2013 at 5:20 am #

    jacq’s…What alergen brings on this anaphylaxis? It is drug, pollen or food, or even insect related? Just curious.