by Christie Chapman
Rafael won our three games of Connect Four then trounced me at chess. Rafael is 10 and in fifth grade. He keeps a pet gerbil in a cage near his bookshelf, which he neatly maintains with his books about gerbil care facing outward as a kind of display. At a dinner party hosted by his parents, his intelligent brown eyes seemed to almost keep up with the adult banter.
His parents make sure not to talk down to him. If they use a word he doesn’t know, they promptly define it for him. If he does something that his parents think is rude, such as reaching over his mother at the dinner table for a bowl of quinoa salad, they will explain to him why his behavior might be offensive to others.
I guessed that Rafael had asthma within minutes of meeting him, when he gallantly offered to give me the grand tour of his house. He led me from room to room, pointing out features and sharing trivia, and I complimented his cool bunk bed and his trampoline in the basement. Every few words, he wheezed. It was a sound like someone who has to cough but is holding back, or like someone who is pacing himself, trying to get a few words out before the next staticky rasp. His parents showed no signs of obvious panic, and it occurred to me: They’re used to this.
I’ve worked at AANMA for a little over a year, and I’ve heard some of our veteran staff members (many of them are mothers of children with asthma) talk about how they can “just tell” when someone has asthma from the sound of the person’s breathing. I’ve often marveled at their uncanny ability to discern asthma, even when speaking with someone over the phone. I don’t have asthma, and I don’t have a child who has asthma.
But after a year of immersion, being around parents and speaking with AANMA members for my work in the organization’s Publications department, I’m starting to be able to recognize it, too.
At my friends’ house, it wasn’t the boxes of Ventolin® nebulizer solution that I later glimpsed in the kitchen, or the voices of Rafael and his parents coming from his bedroom late at night after what I think was a coughing fit, or even the wheeze and rasp in Rafael’s voice that let me know for sure that Rafael had asthma symptoms.
Until I saw the Ventolin, I hadn’t been sure that Rafael didn’t just have a bad cold that evening.
It was his parents’ elevated awareness of their son’s shifts in behavior and mood that made me realize asthma was a fact of everyday life for Rafael and his family. However, I left impressed at how his parents seem determined to raise him to be self-sufficient and to question the world around him until it makes sense – strengths that will serve him well for the rest of his life.
Now if I can only find a way to tactfully present them with a copy of AANMA’s Indoor AIRepair kit so they can make sure Rafael’s beloved gerbil friend doesn’t make it harder to breathe in that cool room with the bunk beds…