Crestline High School junior Claudia Koan didn’t hesitate before going out for a run, despite losing her inhaler.
It turned out to be a mistake the three-sport athlete will not make again.
“I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal, but I had an asthma attack,” Koan, a member of the Bulldogs’ cross country, swimming and track teams, said. “I had to hold myself up on a stop sign, and I had to try and catch my breath.
“I ended up throwing up and almost blacking out. I went into the hardware store and called my mom.”
Luckily for Koan, the missing inhaler was in her mother’s car, and while she had mostly calmed down by the time her ride arrived, she took a couple of puffs. Now she keeps that inhaler with her all the time. She has three rescue inhalers, including one she stores in her purse, another that stays at school in her gym locker and a third packed in her swim-team bag.
Koan is one of many athletes across Ohio who has asthma.
But with proper treatment and education, students suffering from the ailment can participate in any sport, and do it at a high level.
“If we can get everybody who coaches kids to look at it the same way, I think we’ll make some very valuable inroads into dealing with this particular problem,” said Jim Erdenberger, assistant director of pulmonary services at MedCentral/Mansfield Hopsital, who is a member of the Ohio Asthma Coalition.
“It’s happening. Coaches are more knowledgeable about things, being kind of required because of things like the concussion issue that is out there. Well, here is another one that is just as dangerous as the concussion issue.”
Statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate 1.1 million adults and 420,000 children in Ohio have asthma. However, of those 420,000, two-thirds are under diagnosed or don’t receive the proper treatment, which is why it’s important for coaches and educators to know the warning signs.
“It’s kind of chronic and long term. If you are asthmatic and have been diagnosed with asthma, there are signs you are having problems,” Erdenberger said. “What wheezes is not always asthma. What wheezes is always chronic pulmonary obstructive disease.
“Coughing a lot, being short of breath a lot, tightness in chest a lot … are all signs of working out really hard. But, if it doesn’t disappear after you stopped to rest, or it takes too long a period of time for you to recover, and you are still having those symptoms, it’s time to have somebody look at you to see if you have asthma.”
Erdenberger said to understand what someone is going through during an asthma attack, breathe normally for awhile, grab a coffee stirrer, stick it in your mouth, pinch your nose and try breathing through the straw for one minute. This is how difficult it is for an asthmatic to breathe when suffering from an attack.
The clinical definition is a decrease in the effective use of the airways.
“Your heart rate speeds up, your respiratory rate speeds up, but the amount of air you are moving is going to decrease considerably,” Erdenberger said. “All of those things are going on and can cause you to become dizzy, disoriented, black out, throw up, a number of things can happen.
“An asthma attack that is especially acute and severe is life-threatening. We’ve had a couple of teenagers and young kids die over last couple of years in Ohio. Last year we had 34 children die from asthma attacks.”
In May, Madison senior Adam Day lost his breath and collapsed during a state league soccer game with the Ohio Strikers. His mother took him to the doctor, where he was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma.
“I’ve had a few attacks, but I have an inhaler so I can kind of control it now,” said Day, a member of Madison’s soccer, football and baseball teams. “I know if it is coming. I know what to feel for and I have my inhaler.”
Day’s instinct in knowing whether he should stop playing and use his inhaler is one Erdenberger said is common among athletes.
“Surprisingly, they kind of know when they are in these ranges,” he said. “If they have a problem, it’s, ‘OK. I have that sensation. I need to stop. I need to take my inhaler, give it a few minutes to let things recover and then maybe try this again …'”
Koan also suffers from exercise-induced asthma, and encourages others to speak up if they feel something isn’t right.
“Listen to your body. If something is off, you need to get it figured out, because the more you ignore it the worse it’s going to get,” she said.
Jordan Adkins, a seventh-grader at Highland, is a case in point.
During the Fredericktown Invitational this fall, Adkins found it hard to breathe during a time of year where allergens run rampant. His oxygen was so low after finishing — even after his inhaler — his mother rushed him to the emergency room.
“In the middle of the course, I couldn’t breathe for a second, but then I coughed it all out and felt a lot better,” Adkins said.
“But I wasn’t feeling well. Once I got to our tent, I couldn’t breathe, took a couple puffs of my inhaler. That didn’t help. We waited a few minutes, I took another couple of puffs, and didn’t get any better …”
Adkin’s main trigger is allergies, which is common. Other triggers include exercise, weather, stress, secondhand smoke and perfumes or colognes.
The Ohio High School Athletic Association does not have a specific course required of coaches to take in regard to athletes with asthma. It is discussed during first aid training.
“All coaches are trained to be aware of this condition,” OHSAA assistant commissioner Deborah Moore said.
The Ohio Asthma Coalition likes the idea of a course on asthma education being considered by the OHSAA.
“Although we are not advocating for a specific educational component, please be assured students are screened for any pulmonary issues, including asthma,” Moore said. “The medical examiner is the one who is responsible for clearing the student or sending him/her on for more definitive evaluation and treatment.
“Coaches are trained as first responders, and medical personnel are authorized to disclose any information such as the need to take medication through an inhaler to coaches or athletic trainers so students can be protected.”
Tri-Valley senior Elizabeth Beattey and Newark senior Logan Anderson are prime examples of athletes who have suffered from asthma, but rarely, if ever, exhibit symptoms.
Asthma is not outgrown. It can be controlled. Staying in good health and knowing and avoiding triggers is key
“If you exercise you feel better,” Erdenberger said. “You do those things you need to do to help your general health, so you have a little bit more of a resistance to the triggers, and then just treat it and you’ll be OK.”
Beattey began swimming at the age of 8, and struggled with her asthma so much she almost quit. That would’ve shut off something she now loves as a member of the Scotties varsity.
“It was horrible the first year,” Beattey said. “I didn’t know if I would be able to continue.
“Before every warmup and practice, I was living off my inhaler.
“When I started swimming for Cambridge and Tri-Valley, my body was more used to it because I was pushing myself a lot harder, and I didn’t have to use my rescue inhaler.”
Anderson, a member of the soccer and basketball teams, was diagnosed at a young age and can’t even recall his last asthma attack.
“I used to referee soccer, and I’ve seen soccer players on the field having problems run to the sideline, take a couple puffs and try to go back in, and they can do that,” Erdenberger said.
“Asthma isn’t something that should stop you from being in sports. If you control it the right way with the proper medications, you can participate in any sport you want to.”