Regina Green used to spend nights hoping her son Myron would stop coughing. In 1998, Myron entered his first winter with what seemed like a cold that wouldn’t go away.
“He would get to the point where he would cough and cough and cough and start sweating,” says Green, a friendly, talkative African American woman whose round face is dominated by hip, horn-rimmed glasses and a genuine gaze of pleasantness, even in the unusual event that she’s not smiling.
She wasn’t then. “I was concerned,” she says, and often she was terrified. Cough and cold medicine didn’t help. And the doctor who saw him when he was about 6 months old thought the cough “didn’t sound right,” Green recalls.
It was possible Myron had something more serious than the respiratory viruses and colds that so often afflict infants—it could be something like bronchitis or pneumonia. Green was to watch him carefully.
Two years later, as the air outside turned colder, Myron’s coughing returned. One night the coughing became a hack. Then Myron struggled to catch a breath.
Green rushed him from their Woodlawn apartment to The University of Chicago Children’s Hospital, in nearby Hyde Park, where she was told that his airways were clogged.
Although asthma is hard to diagnose in infants because they’re susceptible to other illnesses with similar symptoms, the doctor who saw Myron suspected the 2-year-old had suffered an asthma attack.
It was the beginning of a dangerous, frightening few years. Myron had a series of potentially fatal attacks while Green, a coat clerk at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, struggled to hold onto her job and cover her son’s prescription costs.
“I thought, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do,'” Green says. “I thought I was going to have to quit my job to take care of this child. I thought I was going to lose him.”
Asthma tends to run in families, and it had shown up in Green’s mother and brother when they were adults. Her young nephew was hit with it so hard he had to spend two and a half months in the hospital.
But Green would never have been able to anticipate Myron’s struggles. After that first visit, Myron stayed in the hospital for several days. Back in their apartment, Green’s three other boys—then ages 5 to 9—worried about whether they were going to see Myron again. “They kept asking me, ‘Mama, what’s happened to him?'” she says. Green assured them he would be okay—but privately, she was unsettled herself.
And for good reason. Myron was finally sent home after being prescribed medication to relax the muscles in his airways, only to return within a few weeks. He was officially diagnosed with asthma, received more medicine, and then had a series of struggles with pneumonia.
Green’s life fell into a pattern. “I kept going back and forth between the hospital and home, and then I’d leave for work.” She had to step out the door by 4 a.m. to make it downtown by 6. It was exhausting. Green tried to rearrange her hours. Nothing was workable. She missed a day, then missed again and again. She was put on probation twice.
“It still stands as I can’t miss any more days,” she says. “What am I supposed to do? I could let him die. Then I’d have a job and no baby.”
Fighting asthma is also a financial pressure. With the insurance Green had through her job, the prescriptions and emergency medications cost her up to $60 a month—a hardship for a single mother of four making about $300 a week.
Meanwhile, Myron was having a hard time. “He was scared,” Green says. During one visit, “he was really crying. He told me his chest was hurting. The nurse says, ‘You have to stop crying to get your treatments.’ But he had to cry. And he couldn’t keep anything down because of his coughing.”
He missed a lot of preschool, and he was nervous and shy on the days he was there. “When he was 2 to 3 years old, he had a difficult time socializing because I think he thought that ‘If I run and play, I’ll get sick,'” Green says. “The teacher would take them to gym. They’d play basketball, ride a bike, rip and run. –¦ He’d just sit there.”
By the time he was 3, Myron had made about 20 visits to the hospital—far too many, in the view of Alyna Chien, his new doctor at The University of Chicago.
Chien has seen hundreds of cases of asthma, which accounts for up to a third of all the admissions to the hospital.
“Asthma is a controllable disease,” she emphasizes. Yet most doctors and patients tend to address it through what she calls “the rescue model,” relying on medications designed to relax lungs after they have tightened up. Instead, Chien wants asthmatics to take drugs that help prevent attacks from starting in the first place.
Chien discussed Myron’s condition with his family and made sure they were comfortable with administering his medications. She also put Myron on an “asthma plan,” a medication schedule mapped out on a sheet of paper that’s part data table and part Candy Land board game. It shows what drugs should be taken in what doses for each set of symptoms, ranging from none to trouble breathing. Green and all of her boys learned to read it. The green means things are good, she says.
“If we get to the yellow, we’re kind of like, ‘Now we might have a problem.’ When we get to the red, we’re taking him to the hospital.”
And Chien sent Myron to a specialist who found problems with his tongue and tonsils. An operation took care of it. Myron currently takes a pill and uses an inhaler daily, and knows the when and how for each.
So far it’s worked: Despite occasionally “crackling a bit,” he hasn’t had an attack since late last winter.
Myron himself is mostly concerned with lobbying his mother for a pet iguana—an animal to which he’s apparently not allergic—and keeping up with his older brothers.
On a recent warm, humid afternoon, he and his brother Demetrius, 10, are holed up in the family’s apartment doing battle in a Nintendo video game “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater,” in which players maneuver a skateboarder through a series of daredevil stunts. It’s the kind of day when Myron could have trouble with the pollen and grass outdoors, so Green keeps him inside.
When the boys load another game, she notes that, while Myron’s asthma seems to be under control for now, it wasn’t long ago that she feared for his life. Green isn’t sure anyone at his new grade school will know how to administer his medicine if needed.
Regardless of how good things look, she is always watching and listening for any signs that his horrible cough might return.
“You don’t want to forget about it, like he’s got his problems solved,” she says.