Opinion: Wildfires make this terrible disease even scarier

Editor’s Note: Pamela Appea is a New York City-based journalist covering health, science and intersectionality. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion at CNN

Asthma cut short the life of my mother and has sickened each of my two children at various points in their lives. During one relatively brief episode of my life I fell ill from it too, some years back. I’m better now but am left with the dread that asthma can always recur, upending the life of my family, sending us running to middle of the night visits to the emergency room or causing my kids to miss yet another day of school.

Pamela Appea - Courtesy Pamela Appea
Pamela Appea - Courtesy Pamela Appea

I worry about asthma in the winter when the frigid, dry air can lead to narrowed, irritated airways making the intake of each breath labored. I worry about it in spring, when the pollen in the air can trigger wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. I worry about it in the autumn as my lungs are not quite used to the increasing cold and when ragweed pollen fills the air.

But these days, my fears about asthma are centered mostly around the summer months.

Last year, billows of thick black smoke cascaded from Canada’s raging wildfires, blackening the skies of the northern plains of the US and polluting the air as far away as New York City, where I live. Those blankets of smog settled over much of the US and descended on communities as far away as Florida. Some of the smoke even found its way to Europe. My family weathered the worst of the smog indoors and luckily none of us fell ill.

Now we may be on the cusp of experiencing a repeat of last summer — and families like mine with a history of asthma are bracing ourselves again. Stultifying heat and devastating wildfires are back in Canada. Last month, fires across the border in Canada led to evacuations of hundreds of people. Minnesota and Wisconsin last month issued warnings that people should stay inside.

That was in mid-May, when it was still springtime. I shudder to think what August will bring. Research has shown that wildfire smoke can be connected to the onset of asthma. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are some 25 million Americans with asthma, so I suspect that many, many others feel the same sense of dread that I do.

There’s another connection between Canada, asthma and my family — and it’s a somewhat accidental one. My mother, an immigrant from Ghana, spent many years living in Canada, although she didn’t develop asthma until we moved to the United States.

Her circuitous path is not unfamiliar for migrants to North America from Africa. After emigrating from Ghana, my mother spent a few years in England, and then moved to Quebec, where she lived and worked. Divorced, she was left to raise me, my older sister and two older brothers alone. She ultimately decided that New York City, with its rich immigrant community, including a good number of people from the African diaspora, was a better place to raise her family than the remote village in rural Canada where we were among the only Black people.

The Premier of Manitoba, Canada, Wab Kinew, surveys wildfires by helicopter which ravaged the north of the province last month. - David Lipnowski/The Canadian Press/AP
The Premier of Manitoba, Canada, Wab Kinew, surveys wildfires by helicopter which ravaged the north of the province last month. - David Lipnowski/The Canadian Press/AP

But shortly after arriving in the United States, my mother developed adult-onset asthma. It could have been brought upon by stress, or environmental issues, genetics or a combination of factors, it’s impossible to say. At the time she began to fall ill more frequently, I was around 10. But even at that tender age, I quickly came to understand that asthma medications in the United States were prohibitively expensive. The high price tag meant that the medication my mother desperately needed was sometimes out of reach.

After losing someone so close to me to asthma, I have become intimately familiar with the signs of the illness. My mom wouldn’t usually confess to me and my three older siblings that she was feeling poorly, but as a child, I learned to read her symptoms. I recall the helplessness I felt during her asthma attacks as her wheezing progressively worsened.

I worried during the doctor’s appointments I sometimes accompanied her to, when she rattled off her list of ailments — tightness in her chest and not being able to take in a complete lungful of air. After her bouts of labored breathing, my mother would seem exhausted and depleted. I now understand that asthma episodes, particularly undertreated ones, can cause significant stress on the body. I wonder if damage caused by the cumulative effect of her asthmatic episodes is what cost her her life.

Unfortunately, the challenges that my mom faced getting asthma medication persisted. Co-pays and uncovered prescription costs strained our family’s budget. There were times that my mother didn’t fill her prescriptions for her asthma medication out of concern over the cost. Then one night some three decades ago, her asthma struck again. It was a particularly serious episode that left my mother so short of breath that she was unable to utter more than a few words at a time.

Before losing the ability to speak altogether that day, my mother asked me to call a family friend to take her to the hospital — she was worried, as always, about money and how the cost of an ambulance would further strain our family finances. By the time we finally arrived at the emergency room, she was unconscious. A short time later, she was gone. Asthma had claimed my mother at just 48 years old, in what should have been the prime of her life.

Over the years with the signs and symptoms after years of living with asthma – first as the child of someone with the condition, then as the mother of two children who have developed severe asthma. I know that asthma has a genetic component. Research shows that if you have a parent with asthma, you have a 25% likelihood of developing asthma yourself.

I think of my mother trying to stretch her medications. I don’t know what I would have done without access to a reliable supply of Albuterol, a home nebulizer, maintenance medications and the guidance of medical professionals whom I respect and trust.

Still, I remain vigilant because there is no cure for asthma and my family is so susceptible to its ravages.

I keep an ever-watchful eye on pollen counts, and on news reports about shortages in potentially life saving medication that my family needs to combat asthma.

I also now keep an eye on the weather, for forecasts of fires from a thousand miles away that could instigate another terrible episode of the illness that has stolen so much from me already.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com