Kathy Miller of Trail, British Columbia, learned she had asthma four months ago, at age 53. If being diagnosed with a lung condition during a respiratory pandemic wasn’t enough, Kathy has struggled with other chronic health issues, including chronic pancreatitis, since she was only three years old.
Getting an asthma diagnosis was a winding road. Just over two years ago, Kathy experienced a terrible bout of acute pancreatitis that caused a heart problem. She has been off work ever since.
“I was having trouble breathing ever since then, and my doctor chalked it up to the heart problem associated with my chronic pancreatitis. And then six months ago, I said, I’m having some trouble here, and she said, well, let’s get you another X-ray. We did that. She said, Yeah, it looks like your lungs have changed, so let’s get you into the breathing clinic,” Kathy says.
At Respiratory Services at Trail’s Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital, they diagnosed Kathy with asthma. The respiratory clinic staff suspected she had had mild asthma for a long time but didn’t know it.
Greg Rollins, Manager of Respiratory Services at the hospital, oversees fifteen respiratory therapists in the Kootenay Boundary region. These therapists work throughout the hospital with patients who have difficulty breathing, from premature infants to people with chronic disease like Kathy. They are also the front line for dealing with Covid patients.
“The prevalence of asthma has been increasing, but the treatment for it and our understanding of how to manage it has really improved. We see fewer cases of severe asthma that lead to death like we used to. You can’t cure asthma, but you can control it,” says Greg.
Life with a New Condition
Kathy has spent the past few months learning how to control her asthma.
“I got put on a rescue inhaler. I tried that for two months, and then it wasn’t quite enough. I ended up with a cold and a sinus infection. So my doctor said, let’s try a steroid as well. So I’ve been on that, and it’s made a huge difference.”
She is also controlling her asthma by buying a new, more efficient furnace and is considering installing the recommended air filtration system in her house.
“I’m hoping with the new inhalers that I’m on that I will be able to go for my long walks again. Hopefully.”
Kathy is unsure why she developed asthma later in life. She believes that the pollution from industry around where she lives in Trail has improved over the years, although she did grow up when that pollution was at its height. She also worries about a link between asthma and forest fires.
Forest fires are becoming a regular occurrence in our area in the last few years. Before her pancreatitis attack, Kathy worked at Poplar Ridge Pavilion long-term care home as a care aid. There, she witnessed the effects of air quality on the residents.
“Forest fire smoke had a huge impact on the elderly because a lot of them have breathing problems.”
Respiratory Services Manager Greg explains that forest fire smoke is the most severe threat to lung health in our area.
“Whenever you see smoke in the air, you can pretty much assume that there’s small particulate matter that, for most of us, will irritate your eyes, nose and throat. But if you have any chronic diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, that small particulate matter can exacerbate your pre-existing disease. And you’re at high risk for an emergency room visit or a trip to your doctor.”
Tiny particles in smoke cause inflammation when absorbed into your system. Smoke from wood-burning stoves does the same thing. Greg says that the clinic also sees surges for people with allergic asthma in pollen season. There’s no doubt that asthma has become more and more commonplace.
Kathy knows that air pollution is a big issue beyond individuals, and she hopes people will do their part by putting out their cigarette butts and campfires to reduce the number of forest fires and improve the air quality in our region.
If You Can’t Stand the Heat
In addition to noticing the increase in forest fires in our area, Kathy, born and raised in Trail, has detected changes in the temperatures year to year.
“It’s so much hotter. Like, look at today. It’s going to be 35 degrees, and it’s barely June. I’m sure it has to do with climate change. It starts earlier, and it’s hot longer. And especially the snow. In the wintertime, there used to be so much snow. Last year I think I had to shovel three times. So yeah, big difference. The weather’s changed a lot.”
Kathy is trying to take good care of herself during Covid. She says it wouldn’t be good if she got Covid with her asthma as well as her chronic health issue that lowers her immune system.
Kathy just got her Covid vaccine last week because she was sick with back to back cases of cold and flu. She is breathing a sigh of relief, being vaccinated. “I feel very happy about that.”
While Kathy is still adjusting to her new diagnosis, she is optimistic about her future living with asthma.
“I thought I was a hypochondriac. And then, when I was diagnosed, I was like, thank goodness. Something can happen. I can take some inhalers. Things can get better.”