My Lab Makes Me Sick

I was fascinated to read the story of an organic chemist, LuAnne McNulty, who developed asthma that was triggered by the very lab in which she worked.

It’s only been a decade, but it feels more like a lifetime since all this started. At first, I just noticed that I would get these wicked coughing fits whenever I visited the walk-in coolers at work and it would get harder and harder to breath. I thought it was the cold air and, certainly, cold air isn’t exactly kind to me (although why I thought that was normal is another question entirely). It wasn’t until I went for allergy testing that I remembered exactly what I was doing in that job. I worked in a forest pathology lab, and I was carrying samples of mold back and forth. Many of the strains I worked with turned out to be strains I’m pretty allergic to. Did I mention that I can be clueless?

Throughout the course of the following years, I switched specializations a few times – each time working with a variety plants, critters and chemicals that triggered difficulty breathing. I got sicker and sicker, and eventually I gave up and found something else to do.

I whine about that sometimes, and my friend always helpfully reminds me that, you know, I did neglect my health for over a decade. What did I expect? It stings, sometimes, to think of how differently things could have gone had I made different choices. Either way, though, what’s done is done, and I am starting to regain control of my life.

Tomorrow, I’m heading to Toronto for a week of fun with an old friend. It’s been years since I’ve been down that way, and the last time I did I was pretty unwell.

A lots changed since then, and I’m pretty excited!

I am under no illusions that life will ever be the way it was when I was younger. There can’t always be accommodations for our struggles. Still,  I feel better these days than I have felt in a long time and there’s a lot that you can accomplish with a little creativity. I’m starting to hope that maybe I can own this asthma thing, instead of it being the other way around.



One of the hardest things about all of this, I think, was learning how to tell people.

For the longest time, I would just go hide in an empty office or the bathroom whenever I was having trouble breathing – as if everybody in the building didn’t hear my coughing and nobody noticed me trying to hide obvious respiratory distress at my desk.

I tend to do the same thing when I park my car in the winter: I know, of course, that the walk to my vehicle in the cold will inevitably launch a coughing fit that will send me to my knees, and that I won’t really be safe to drive home for at least a half hour. So, I park as far away from the building as I can manage – it makes everything harder, but at least nobody sees.

This, I’m told, is stupid.

I work in a pretty remote location. We’re not so isolated that there’s no highway access, but we’re isolated enough that it would take am ambulance an hour or so to reach us. Longer in the winter.

In the unlikely event of an emergency, those delays wouldn’t be very helpful and it would be even less helpful if nobody noticed that anything was wrong.  So, I’ve been obligated to talk about all of this with my manager and peers. As in, it’s actually a workplace policy sort of obligated.

It hasn’t been all bad, really. Whether or not I’ve been diagnosed with asthma really depends on which healthcare practitioner you ask, but it’s the simplest explanation. Nobody I’ve told was surprised, either.

It’s still embarrassing when my coworkers see me using my inhaler, and the spacer doesn’t help matters. I suspect it’s a bigger deal for me than them, though… and you know what? I don’t cough as much as I used to, and Ventolin usually sorts it out quickly, but I still cough quite a lot. It’s nice that nobody thinks I have the plague anymore!

Peak Flows for 09/14/2013 to 09/28/2013

peak flow

When all this started, I was advised to start tracking my peak flows on a twice daily basis (as well as whenever I felt difficulty breathing), and so I’ve done so. Does it mean anything? The nurse practitioner I saw last said that this looked fine.

I am so deeply confused. So why do I keep attending these never ending appointments?

I’m not on that many medications, just Singulair, Qvar and Ventolin – but it still seems like I take quite a lot of drugs for the treatment of nothing at all.

This is the year that everything changes…

We walked in silence on our way to my car.

It’s autumn. This is my favourite season, and I would love to say that I am just distracted by the jewel-toned leaves decorating the trees. It’s more, though, that the promise of winter in the air takes my breath away. Literally.

“You’re wheezing again,” he says.

For a few minutes, I don’t answer him. It’s too hard to remember how to breathe, and it’s always so embarrassing when the slightest things leave me gasping for air. When I do, though, the frustration in my voice is nearly palpable as I remind him that I don’t wheeze.  A loosing bet, I guess, with someone who has a stethoscope, but I never learn.

For years, there has been so much I just couldn’t do.

In university, I missed five months of class because the simple act of walking to the bus stop would leave me with a violent cough. When it finally subsided, I would always be useless the rest of the day. Lots of things are like that for me. The small stuff, you know? Like the way mowing the lawn or vacuuming tends to leave me gasping for air in minutes. It routinely takes me upwards of 7 hours to shovel the driveway on particularly cold winter days.

I always just assumed I was lazy and out of shape, that all I needed to do was to keep pushing harder… or that it was just allergies, or maybe just a particularly nasty cold. You know, the kind that lasts for a year. I thought that living like that was normal, and so that’s how I lived for a decade.

Things changed when I started to carpool with a paramedic. Again and again, he told me that something was wrong… that sometimes a cough wasn’t a just cough, and little by little I decided that this was the year that everything would change.

I went to a see a doctor for the first time in years, just as terrified that my friend was right as I was worried that I would be told that nothing was wrong. When I was finally diagnosed with asthma, it was devastating.

The first time, though, that Ventolin stopped my cough? I cried.

I didn’t know it was possible to breathe so well.

It’s been confusing since then. I don’t have a family doctor and, unless I leave this small town, that’s unlikely to change. There’s no continuity to my care.  I’ve seen physicians, nurse practitioners, a pulmonologist and an allergist – it’s never the same person twice, and the opinions change just as often. One week, my Allergist will talk about asthma control and the next a Nurse Practitioner will insist that I would be better off discontinuing all my medication. That this is all just in my head, or maybe just allergies.

It’s exhausting.

It’s exhausting and frustrating and sometimes I’m not sure I care anymore what’s wrong with me. In the end, though, I still feel better than I ever have before and I’m terrified of feeling like I used to. It’s nice to be able to breathe, you know?