Asthma — Cat Got Your Lungs?

Circa 2009

It always starts at night. I wake up groggy, wondering if I heard a sound, or if my cat, Basil, curled up on my legs again and woke me. I’m a light sleeper. After that first hour of deep sleep, anything can stir me from slumber. But this time, it only takes a moment to realize that it’s my own body waking me up, murmuring in my chest, telling me I can’t breathe.

I’m used to it by now, so I remain calm. I try to take in a short breath, gauge how severe the wheeze of breath squeezing through my lungs is, and I clear my throat. I take several more breaths, deeper now, hoping it is just a slight irritation and I’ll be able to drift back to sleep without getting out of bed. So far, this is just wishful, dreamy thinking. I always have to get up.

I slip out of bed, walk to the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, and grab my red emergency inhaler for quick relief. I breathe out, my chest wheezes and constricts and I cough. I haven’t exhaled all the air in my lungs, but with my next breath, I’m inhaling a misty steroid to stop my bronchial tubes from swelling any further. In the next few minutes, the muscles relax and sweet, fresh air fills my lungs once again.

Asthma, as I recently learned, is classified as a disability by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Disabilities are defined by impairments that limit one or more “major life activities.” Since breathing, apparently, is a major life activity, those suffering from asthma are also considered to have a disability, and can receive SSI benefits if it is severe enough. Asthma is a chronic illness, like diabetes, cancer, hypoglycemia, and HIV, and is shared by approximately 300 million people around the world.

 I haven’t always had asthma. I wasn’t the kid who couldn’t play sports without packing the inhaler, I was never rushed to an ER by a worried parent and I never got the sniffles and itchy eyes around flowers or from dust or the numerous pets we adopted. My symptoms started when I was 19.

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In the summer of 2007, I came down with what I thought was a nasty respiratory disease which kept me up all night hacking and wheezing. Some nights, instead of getting rest, I would walk downstairs and then pace around outside in the cool night air until my lungs would calm down enough for me to return to bed. Hesitant to see a doctor at the time, I looked online to seek answers. My symptoms seemed to indicate bronchitis. It’ll go away, I thought, so I stocked up on cough suppressants and Nyquil.

But after a month of coughing, wheezing, and generally feeling like I was suffocating in open air, I decided it was time to go to the doctor. (It probably didn’t hurt that my boyfriend threatened to leave me if I didn’t go.)

At the clinic, my pulse was taken, my blood was drawn and my chest was X-rayed. On the scan, large spots appeared, which my doctor explained were patches of dead air that I wasn’t exhaling. Since I couldn’t get rid of that dead air, I couldn’t inhale fresh air to replace it, which is why I felt like I never got enough air, no matter how many breaths I took. When my lungs were irritated, my airways would swell and restrict my air intake even more. My doctor put me on a bronchodilator and gave me a prescription for a daily steroid to be taken once every four hours for the first few days, then twice a day after that. The prescription included my trusty red emergency inhaler for when the other medication wasn’t enough.

One week later, the results from my blood test proved decisively that I was allergic to my two cats. The doctor was quite clear about this: “ You should get rid of your cats,” she said.

As any animal lover would know, this was an incredibly difficult decision to make. After all, I’d had my cats longer than I had asthma, and I had never experienced any other allergic symptoms. I took the medication as prescribed, added over-the-counter allergy meds to the mix, and capped off my sleepless nights with a handy dose of albuterol. I am certain this would have been an easier process if Basil did not insist upon sleeping with me every night; but cats will be cats!

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See, here’s the thing about Basil: he and I take care of each other. When I found him as a kitten wandering around a Walgreens late at night, I didn’t know if I could keep him. In a few days I would be starting work as a resident assistant at my college dorm where pets were strictly forbidden. But I know what it’s like to be homeless, and I know how cold Chicago gets in the winter, so I took him in, against the rules.

Through the very challenging, stressful months that followed, Basil was always there to curl up on my lap and cuddle with me when I was down. Because he needed me, I kept him. And even when the staff found out about him and I lost my job and my apartment, I took him with me. We crashed on friends’ couches and eventually moved in with my boyfriend and his cat, Rodney. I wasn’t going to give up on this little cat. The way I saw it, he never gave up on me either.

Today, my asthma is, for the most part, under control. My allergies to my cats have actually subsided. Although I am still very allergic to other people’s pets, I have fewer asthma attacks. Maybe someday it will go away completely. Maybe it will never go away. What I’ve learned that’s really important: never to let a disability take away the things in life that give you joy, even if that involves carefully regimented drugs, learning a new way of doing things, or fighting against the people who say you can’t. You can. Your cat will appreciate it too.

by Dana Nelson

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