I Thought I Was Having a Heart Attack, but I Learned I Have Asthma
At age 85, after experiencing shortness of breath, I was surprised by an asthma diagnosis
At first, I blamed Doris. My four-year-old shelter dog walks so fast on the way to the dog park, I thought my striving to keep up triggered my labored breathing.
There were other culprits. Recently, when I was walking home with friends from a neighborhood restaurant, I tried to chat and match their pace. But I huffed and puffed. My pals are decades younger than I am was my prognosis.
But then, like an amateur pole vaulter easing past the bar but landing shakily on the ground, I leapt to my certainty of a pending heart attack.
"I'm having trouble catching my breath when I walk my dog."
"I want a stress test," I typed from my computer to my physician's portal. My fingers were unsteady, mimicking the speed of my heartbeats.
"I'm having trouble catching my breath when I walk my dog," I wrote. Then, to increase the dire needed to help me slip through her crowded calendar, I added: "Both of my parents died young of heart disease. My dad at 47 and mom at 67."
Time for an Exam
It worked. "But before we schedule a stress test," she wrote back, "come in for an exam."
I felt safe in her office. If a heart attack did plan an invasion, I was in a perfect place to survive. With her stethoscope, she listened to my heart and my lungs. She used an oximeter to check my oxygen. All of these, plus blood pressure, were in the normal range. I was relieved, but not convinced.
"Let's get a chest x-ray," she said. Perhaps she observed the expression on my face that hadn't yet changed from fear to relief.
Isn't it a kid's illness? My grandson had it as a youngster. I remember him using an inhaler.
I took the elevator two floors down to the imaging lab, with my symptoms as accompaniment. I was not walking fast, but I was hyperventilating. I was frightened. Lung cancer. I have lung cancer, I diagnosed.
I returned to the doctor's office with prayers accompanying my panting. "Clear," she said after reviewing the screens. "No change since your last x-ray in 2019."
I was a death row inmate who had just learned of the governor's reprieve.
"Let's get a blood test," she said. "That will eliminate pneumonia or other infections. But I think you may have asthma."
Asthma! How could I get this disease? Isn't it a kid's illness? My grandson had it as a youngster. I remember him using an inhaler.
A quick search online confirmed that the prevalence of asthma is higher in children (9.4%) than in adults (7.7%) and it is the most common chronic illness in childhood.
I was mystified. For my advanced age of 85, I have been in good health. I followed the guidelines. Along with walking my dog four times a day, I regularly swim and do strength training. I eat leafy green vegetables with two of my three prudent meals. Portions are proportionate to my 4'9" frame.
Wheezing! So that's what that whistling sound is when I get out of bed in the morning.
I feel cheated, as if I had been chatting online with a potential swain only to find out he was a 12-year-old trickster.
Once home, I searched for symptoms of adult-onset asthma, which is the tag for anyone over the age of 20.
Wheezing! So that's what that whistling sound is when I get out of bed in the morning. I remember hearing it at other times in my life, like when I've walked uphill. Have I had the disease for years, but it's just now intensified?
And as for triggers, I had at least two and possibly four: indoor smoke, pet dander, swimming in an indoor pool and relatives with the disease.
I was a fan of incense. For about a month, I had been lighting a stick at nap and bedtimes. Ventilation was urged on the packages, but I had closed the window and bedroom door to assure quiet.
And as for the second clue, I sleep with a dog.
For the third, I checked with my health club, and they demurred, "Our pools (by an automated system that is checked multiple times each day) are kept within the Illinois State Bather Code limits – traditionally around 3 parts per million."
Genetics can also be a cause. But neither of my parents had the illness.
A Trending Condition
I quickly trashed remaining packets of incense. I upped my vacuuming of my apartment's hardwood and carpeted floors. And for now, I'm limiting my time in the indoor pool.
So instead of a heart attack, all my hazardous roads led to asthma.
Scientific descriptions aside, for now, my inhaler is a genie in a bottle. Exhale, open and inhale deeply.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, "Over two million persons with asthma are aged 65 years and older, with this number expected to rise to more than five million by 2030."
I am trending.
A message from my doctor revealed a blameless blood test. Nothing was afoot. A prescription for an inhaler was already in the hands of my CVS pharmacist. Medicare covers the use of inhaled steroids prescribed by a doctor. Now twice a day, I use an inhaler. As I write this, I've only taken 33 of its 60 doses. I can already feel the difference. Three of our walks to the dog park are easier. The fourth continues to prompt heavier breathing.
The unit fits in the palm of my hand, and by following step-by-step instructions complete with illustrations, I get a whiff of its magical powder, fluticasone propionate and salmeterol. The first is a steroid that reduces swelling in the airways. The second is a long-acting beta-agonist. Together they work to relax and open air passages in the lungs, making it easier to breathe.
Scientific descriptions aside, for now, my inhaler is a genie in a bottle. Exhale, open and inhale deeply. Hold for 10 counts, Blow out slowly. Wishes granted!
Triggers addressed. But I'm keeping an appointment for a stress test.
The dog stays on the bed.