Breath of Fresh Air: Feature Articles

Chapter 55: Asthma and an "Ocean Challenge"

Richard W., who is now 48 years old, has had asthma since age one. One of his earliest recollections about asthma, from approximately age 5, is receiving medicine from an old-fashioned, manually operated bulb nebulizer. He describes it as "one of those old contraptions that looked like a turkey baster with some chambers in the middle, and you had to use an eye dropper to drop the medicine into the top of it. You squeezed the ball and it blew [medicine] out the other end. And," he recalls, "it worked." Only later came one of the first metered-dose inhaler devices with a pressurized metal canister, the Isuprel Mistometer®.

As a child, competing in sports was difficult. At times when running he would get so short of breath that he felt as though he might pass out. But he was determined to continue at a competitive level. "Somehow in a funny way, it may have toughened me up, at least mentally. In the games [of his high school soccer team] I just wouldn't let it get in the way." Despite his asthma Richard went on to run in four Boston marathons and has pursued his life-long dream of long-distance sailing.

Recently, he has discovered the pleasures and health benefits of swimming. He likes to swim laps for as much as a mile and feels that his lungs "clear out" with this activity. He notes that the air just above the water is warm and humid. Because his nose is often congested, it is only with swimming that he gets the benefit of breathing warmed and humidified air that one might otherwise have by breathing through one's nose. "It definitely helps to do exercise on a regular basis. Your overall fitness level improves so you're in better shape generally and can absorb the impact of the asthma a little bit more." Richard particularly encourages parents to allow their children with asthma to exercise as much as possible. "There are probably a lot of parents who say, 'No.' It's almost like the parents don't want to scare themselves by seeing the kid struggling for breath. You've got to let the kid do it and even encourage the kid, because it's going to help him."

Richard takes three different asthma medications on a regular basis. Even so, he is dismayed to find that his wife (who doesn't have asthma) has a peak flow value 1/3 larger than his. He notes that it is hard for people without asthma truly to understand the experience of having to work hard to breathe, sometimes everyday, 24 hours a day. He recalls his mother trying to empathize with him for his nasal congestion by wearing a clothespin on her nose one day. He wonders if others might better understand asthma if they tried to breathe through a face mask while exercising. "It's not necessarily that one is looking for sympathy. It's just looking for understanding or somebody to sort of 'get it.'"

Probably the greatest physical challenge that Richard has ever undertaken was to sail his trimaran with one fellow sailor from San Francisco to Boston via Cape Horn in an attempt to break a nineteenth-century clipper record. From the boat he wrote frequent descriptions of the adventure, which were telexed via satellite link to their headquarters, published in a dozen newspapers, and distributed to participating schools. On their first voyage in 1990, the boat capsized in hurricane-force winds and 65-foot high seas, and they had to be rescued from the ocean off Cape Horn by a passing container ship. Their 1993 attempt was sponsored by the American Lung Association and monitored by more than 200,000 people on the Internet as they reported their daily progress in what was called "Ocean Challenge." As Richard describes it, he was "out there, off shore for 70 days, cold and tired and scared," having to manage his asthma as well as everything else.

This time they successfully completed the voyage, and set a world record time in doing so. Richard has written a book about this experience, called Racing a Ghost Ship, that was published by Walker and Co. in 1996 and is intended for children as well as adults. He has continued his interest in live, experiential education by establishing three Internet programs to link children at home or school to three experiential education field school sites around the word (one in a rainforest station in Australia, another studying coral reefs and fisheries in the Caribbean, and the third on board a sailing ship that circles the earth). The address on the world wide web is