When Rich Wilson was growing up, there were many mis-understandings about asthma. Many people still believed that asthma – with its cough, wheezing, shortness of breath, and tightness in the chest – was a psychological disease. Children with asthma were advised to sit out from sports and other strenuous physical activities, because exercise could provoke an attack of asthma. There were few, if any, famous role models with asthma whom a young person with asthma could admire and try to be like. Medicines to treat asthma were also quite primitive. They didn’t work terribly well and they often had unpleasant side effects, like nausea and jitteriness.
There have been major advances in our understanding and treatment of asthma since those times. We know now that for most children, asthma represents an allergic reaction of the breathing (bronchial) tubes. Muscles surrounding the tubes squeeze them into narrow passageways, and inflammation with swelling and mucus further plug them up. As you might imagine, exercise is good for the lungs as well as for the rest of the body. Children with asthma receiving proper treatment are encouraged now to play sports and be fully active without limitation. These days one can easily point to athletic superstars who have excelled despite their asthma, like Jackie Joyner-Kersee in track and field, Amy Van Dyken in swimming, Jerome Bettis in professional football, and, of course, Rich Wilson in sailboat racing. Also, our asthma medicines are stronger, safer, and simpler to use. For many people, that means simply taking one tablet once daily and perhaps one inhalation of medicine once or twice a day.
Although symptoms of asthma come and go, the tendency to develop narrow airways is present all the time for people with asthma. Asthma is a chronic condition. For many people with asthma, that means taking medicines every day to prevent asthma attacks and being on the alert to avoid things (called “triggers”) that might bring on asthma symptoms. Like sailing solo around the world, taking care of your asthma on a daily basis takes perseverance – not letting down your guard, even when things are going well. It also requires teamwork: patient, doctor, family, and friends, all working together to ensure healthy outcomes. Rich Wilson knows this: he takes his asthma medications every day; he checks his breathing frequently with a measuring tool called a peak flow meter, and he consults periodically with his medical team to ensure that he is getting the best treatments available. Smooth sailing takes perseverance and teamwork.