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Severe persistent asthma

A 6-year old's story

10/31/2017, 5:18 p.m.
Asthma ranges in severity from periodic to severe persistent. However, even persistent asthma can be controlled with medication and avoidance ...
T’andre Cephus Harris, 6, (left) and his mother, Sherika Elliott. Katherine C. Cohen/Boston Children’s Hospital

SHERIKA ELLIOTT has four children with asthma, and has become an expert of sorts. The youngest is 6-year-old T’andre.

When at eight months he suffered his first attack, she didn’t miss a beat. She knew exactly what it was, and called her pediatrician to confirm. T’andre had caught a cold and was wheezing and short of breath. The symptoms improved after treatment with a nebulizer. Elliott took no chances, though, and took her son to the emergency department.

The doctors, however, did not confirm a diagnosis of asthma. They thought T’andre instead had bronchiolitis, an inflammation of the bronchioles, which are the smallest passageways of air in the respiratory system. Bronchiolitis is common in infants, and is almost always caused by a virus. About two months later, he was admitted to the hospital after another attack, and a diagnosis of asthma was confirmed.

That started a series of hospital admissions every two months, lasting two weeks at a time. One admission extended from Thanksgiving to January 24, she explained. Sometimes he was placed on a ventilator not only to give his lungs a rest but also to restore the normal exchange of gases in the body. Some asthma attacks prevent the lungs from breathing in oxygen, the source of energy for cells and organs. This in turn causes a buildup of carbon dioxide, which is poisonous if not expelled. The ventilator allows this exchange to occur with little or no help from the lungs.

T’andre has severe persistent asthma, which is often characterized by symptoms throughout the day and frequent nighttime awakening. He takes daily medicine and uses a rescue inhaler when needed. Sometimes that’s often, Elliott said, because he’s quite an active kid,

She knows his triggers. “He has a small reaction to cigarette smoke,” she explained, “and major reactions to moisture, humidity and cool air.” In the winter he wears a ski mask to help warm the air before it reaches his lungs.

His asthma is tricky, Elliott explained. The doctors had to research his condition to properly diagnose and treat him. “He was so little; they couldn’t understand why he was so sick.” He is being followed by an allergist, a pulmonary specialist as well as his regular pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.

T’andre is repeating kindergarten because he missed about a month of school last year. Elliott said she relies on the school nurses to make sure he takes his medicine during the school day.

All in all, Elliott is not complaining. She said that she has seen improvement in her son’s condition over the years. He used to be hospitalized every two months, then every three to four months. Now the time between admissions is six months. Also, if she recognizes the symptoms early he responds to his medicine more quickly.

In spite of all he’s been through in six short years, T’andre seems to be taking his condition in stride. “He is like no other,” Elliott said. “He is an old soul.” She describes him as a caring, active and silly kid.

She recognizes that being constantly on guard has made her life difficult, but she takes it day by day. She relies on the words of her father who advised her that ‘there is someone whose situation is worse than yours.’

She has a consolation. “My son is still here,” she said. “He is happy. Asthma is not affecting him.”

Elliott hopes to develop a foundation to help bring asthma to the forefront and provide a source of information for parents going through the same ordeal. Regardless of what happens with the foundation, she will keep fighting.

“If you give up, you’re giving up on your child,” she explained.

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