Asthma: Personal stories

Nancy Hogshead, 1984 Olympic Gold Medalist


Like many of you, I have asthma. Yes it is true: I, Nancy Hogshead, winner of three Olympic gold medals, have asthma -- just like hundreds of others who have competed in the Olympics.

It was not easy preparing for the Olympics; I worked long and hard for more than ten years. My days would start with a swim at 5:30 a.m., and not end until I had worked out at least twice more. Good health was always in the forefront of my mind, since without my health I could not expect to win races. Athletes with asthma, who take care of their asthma as seriously as they attend to their training, have just as much of a chance of getting to the Olympics -- not to mention winning the gold -- as anyone else.

The first time a doctor asked me to get on a treadmill to test for asthma, I thought he was crazy. I thought people with asthma were sickly wheezers. I was a world champion swimmer, hardly a weakling. Sure, I was sick a lot and tended to cough during and after working out, but who doesn't breathe hard after an intense match against worthy opponents?

But this doctor told me that people with asthma do not always wheeze (I did not), and that approximately ten percent of Olympic athletes from all over the world have asthma. He then gave me a list of the symptoms and I had almost all of them. I agreed to take the test, and was astonished to discover that when I really pushed it, I could be swimming with a 40% decrease in my lung capacity!

Being diagnosed with asthma was not the end of my asthma story; it was just the first step towards a healthier life. I was thrilled to learn that with a bronchodilator I could exercise without getting breathless (that is, no more breathless than I should get). But I still thought using my inhaler was something I could choose to do -- or not do. I considered it a luxury, not a necessity.

Do you know where that got me? Admitted to the hospital, unable to breathe and with pulled muscles in my back from coughing. I was even more frustrated because, for the first time, I knew that I did not have to be sick. If I had done what my doctor told me to do, I would never have been in that condition. It was a scary, miserable experience and one I promised myself I would never repeat.

The hospital experience taught me to make asthma management a part of my daily routine. But in order to truly control my asthma, I had to learn to monitor my condition and treat the smallest symptom quickly, even if I thought I felt fine. Slowly, I got better at associating small physical symptoms with asthma, and even learned how to predict when my peak flow reading was a little low. I learned that some medicines controlled my asthma better than others, and some made me sick.

It was a year-long, trial-and-error process, but by sticking with it, I eventually found medicines that worked well for me, enabling me to go snow skiing even when the air was bitter cold. (Cold, dry air is one of my worst asthma triggers.) Having asthma is no reason to be sick. It may take a while, but if you work with your doctor, you'll find the best way to treat your asthma!

Most people are surprised to learn that I am healthier now than I was during the Olympics. That is because health does not just mean being in shape. I used to get what I thought were bronchitis and colds that kept me sick for more than a month each year. Before I knew about my asthma I was always struggling to catch my breath. I would frequently cough and sometimes pass out after a hard swim. Now that I know how to control my asthma, I don't have to miss out on even a single day. Working out became a more enjoyable experience for me because I no longer have to gasp for breath.

Your asthma should not bother you, and with proper diligent management, it won't. It may not be easy to achieve this, but it will put you -- not your asthma, in control of your life. It doesn't mean just treating your symptoms when you have them, it means preventing the symptoms by doing something every day to maintain healthy lungs. Taking care of your asthma is like brushing your teeth: if you do it every day, you will rarely have problems.

I wish I had known about my asthma sooner, so I could have started feeling better sooner. Instead, I wasted a lot of time being frustrated when I got sick, instead of knowing how to prevent getting sick altogether.

 

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Review Date: 5/16/2007

Reviewed By: Alan Greene, M.D., F.A.A.P., Department of Pediatrics, Packard Children's Hospital, Stanford University School of Medicine; Chief Medical Officer, A.D.A.M., Inc.


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