‘I felt like an Olympic athlete who had just won the gold.’: Asthma warrior shares how she’s taken back her life

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Growing Up With Asthma

“When I was a small child, a doctor told my mom I may not live to see 16 years old, right in front of me. Another told my mom I may have the worst asthma in Colorado history; it was the worst he had ever seen.

My early youth was spent endlessly sick with asthma and it was in the forefront of my mind reminding me of what I ‘couldn’t do.’ I was in and out of the hospital, often in intensive care, particularly around the holidays — spending Thanksgiving, Halloween, and Christmas struggling to breathe.

I was woken up every four hours for a ‘breathing treatment’ — screaming, crying, and begging my mom to make it stop, while being held down to have blood drawn and IV’s inserted. My nose would be sore and raw from the consistent delivery of oxygen. My chest and back muscles were extremely tender and it hurt to move from the struggle to breathe.

mom sitting on couch holding daughter and stuffed animal
Courtesy of Christina Ayala

I was ashamed and humiliated from wetting the hospital bed many times a night because of all of the IV fluids, and then felt scared to ask the nurses to change it. Often my IV’s would be in my dominant right arm, along with a continuous pulse oximeter on my right pointer finger to make sure my oxygen was ‘normal,’ making it difficult to even hold a book at times.

On my chest, I had sticky electrodes with wires, measuring my heart, connected to a monitor. I remember feeling extremely stressed at the thought of asking for help to use the bathroom because of all of the wires. It was quite the ordeal to go and I had to go frequently. I learned to really hold it, probably the reasons for my frequent bladder infections, I’m now realizing as I reflect back.

This was my reality from infancy until second grade, about 10-12 times a year.

There were times I would feel jealous and upset at watching other kids playing outside in the snow, as it wasn’t often I would be allowed to participate. The cold often made it a struggle to breathe, not to mention I would break out in large hives from the frigid air; it was embarrassing.

I couldn’t run like the other children; I would have an asthma attack, and coming back from it was hard. Often my inhaler wouldn’t work correctly and I would have to rush to take multiple doses.

I was on theophylline twice a day, which is a caffeine derivative. Between that and the medication for my inhalers and nebulizers, I was a hyper kid with insomnia.

Other things that set off my asthma: change in weather, strong emotions, and anything I was allergic to (animals with fur, dust, trees, pollen…getting a cold). We had to get rid of our beloved pets because I became allergic to them. My mom says our gray cat, Smokey, was very attached to me and allowed me to lay on him as a toddler; having to part with him was sad.

baby laying on cat's back on the floor
Courtesy of Christina Ayala

I learned to pray and would often talk to God; it took away the sadness and fear I would often feel. I found praying cathartic and through prayer I learned how to become an optimist. I started to find the beauty and the silver lining in situations instead of dwelling on what might be considered a dark time.

I developed a sharp imagination and would daydream adventures. I distinctly remember learning to read and write in the first grade and being in awe of the world that had just opened up to me. I started devouring books as my new oxygen. Through books I mentally had the adventures I couldn’t physically have.

I missed out on school field trips I was excitedly anticipating. When I spent Christmas in the hospital, my mom and siblings would visit with gifts for a while, but then my mom would have to take them home and my Oma (grandma) would come stay with me so I wouldn’t be alone.

girl with asthma in hospital bed on Christmas with sibling and presents
Courtesy of Christina Ayala

Most of my hospital stays are distant memories; I was so young when they occurred, and very sick. Many of the memories I have are flashes or snippets.

When I was four or five years old, my dad took me and my brother on a trip to Puerto Rico to see our family. I ended up in a little outpatient hospital for 3 days. The only thing I remember is feeling stressed and scared because I didn’t speak Spanish and I couldn’t understand what people said to me.

girl with asthma sitting on plane to Puerto Rico
Courtesy of Christina Ayala

I was on the thin side and food didn’t excite me. Eating interrupts breathing and I didn’t have an appetite. My Oma would cry and beg me to eat, but I wasn’t interested.

I learned responsibility early on: how to take my medication on my own and set up my nebulizer treatments, to always have my inhaler on me, and be mindful of the activities I decided to partake in. Other kids, of course, noticed too.

I went to a friend’s birthday party and some of the games consisted of running: red light/green light and tag. I was told by the friend whose party it was, that I had to sit out because, ‘You might have an asthma attack and die.’ While they played, I snuck into the house’s only bathroom and sobbed silently into a towel, while people kept banging on the door to use it. I was heartbroken and angry.

In first grade, I would watch boys chase the girls at recess and I was thrilled to finally be included. I ran as fast as I could, imagining I was lightning fast, but that ended quickly as the boys ‘caught me.’ I panicked and pushed them away, crying because I couldn’t breathe and my inhaler was in the classroom.

I stumbled into the classroom concentrating on not passing out. I had let it get too far and made it just in time to open my lungs. They, of course, no longer included me in their games and I felt like an outsider. This was the first time I said ‘screw asthma’ and did what I wanted. 

In second grade, I had my tonsils and adenoids removed, in hopes I would get sick less, thus improving some of my asthma symptoms. This was around Easter, my favorite holiday. The doctor wanted me to take it very easy and my mom was worried the running around for eggs would exacerbate things.

My family set up a small area for me to look for eggs, alone, no other kids. I appreciated the effort, but it felt like the fun had been taken away as I looked forward to the competition of getting the most eggs. 

mom with daughter in garage on easter, daughter holds basket
Courtesy of Christina Ayala

Testing The Limits With Asthma

I started testing my limits here and there. In the third grade, my asthma was bothering me, but I was selected to be in a special math competition I had trained and practiced for. I was extremely proud of myself for this accomplishment, but my mom suggested I stay home since I wasn’t feeling 100%.

I begged and pleaded, insisting I was fine; I had my inhaler and it would be okay. During the competition I could barely think. I began coughing hard and struggled to get air in. I remember laying my head down on the desk feeling upset and powerless at the situation. I had to be carried out of the school because I was too weak to walk. 

Fast forward to my preteen and teenage years, my family moved to Las Vegas. My doctor switched my medication to something newer and more effective than Theophylline, and the weather seemed to agree with me much better.

However, the doctors would still berate me for using my rescue inhaler ‘too much,’ as if I had a choice. It was the thing keeping me from hospitalization. At this point, I hadn’t been hospitalized for asthma since fourth grade and I was ready to live my life.

When I stayed at friend’s houses with animals, I would have to bring my giant nebulizer and use it unashamedly. I learned to take my inhaler before physical activity and started running in gym, though I didn’t dare push myself, always thinking back to first grade when I almost passed out from running

When I turned 16, I woke up feeling weird and in complete shock as my mind flashed back to the doctor who said I would likely not live to see 16 years old. I thought, ‘Now what?’ I had to reflect on what this meant for me and my future. I was surprised to discover I really thought I would be dead before 16. 

After that, I started pushing myself in gym class and would push myself to run longer and harder. One day, I was determined to run the mile nonstop and finish in less than 10 minutes, something I had never done before. I took my inhaler beforehand and ran as fast as I could, ignoring the burning in my chest, only stopping once to take my inhaler midway.

When I finished, I couldn’t believe it. I had completed a 7 minute mile! I was gasping for air, while lying in the grass, but I was sharply aware of the difference in the way I felt. I felt powerful and incredibly proud.

I ran a whole mile, basically non-stop! It dawned on me at that moment… I am more than my asthma and I have more control than I realize.

Finding My Passion

In my twenties, I decided I would again prove to myself I can push my limits and decided to run 5ks. I paced myself during these races and found them to be fun and challenging. Running 5ks then progressed to participating in tough obstacle course races like the Spartan 10k, with over 25 obstacles, and Battle Frog.

These races required the physical and mental toughness I chased after. I had never before considered myself a physically strong person, but at the end of the races I felt like an Olympic athlete who had just won the gold.

I wasn’t the fastest runner, nor could I run non-stop, but I wasn’t after speed. The only person I was competing with was myself and I wanted to prove I could do it. I felt limitless.

With running came an added benefit: the more I ran, the better my asthma became. I was able to greatly reduce my maintenance medication and needed my rescue inhaler less and less.

woman with asthma stands with man in front of spartan race sign
Courtesy of Christina Ayala

I was astounded my doctors failed to tell me I could potentially improve my asthma with exercise, and this led me to a greater passion: holistic health and preventative education. At 32, I graduated from nursing school in pursuit to become a holistic nurse. My passion was and is to help others be proactive about their whole health instead of reactive when they become sick.

woman takes selfie holding her nurses certificate in hand
Courtesy of Christina Ayala

I became acutely aware of how lifestyle choices affect us when I saw an improvement in my asthma from running. My cumulative experiences have made me the nurse and coach I am today.

When I worked in the hospital, I would fiercely advocate for my patients. I made sure their questions were answered by the doctor and attempted to make their hospital stay as comfortable as possible. I educated them every step of the way as I believe patients should have autonomy and be allowed to make informed decisions about their health and life.

As a self-care coach, I aim to help women see the bigger picture in their decisions and partner with them to put themselves first and include real self-care in their lives, no matter the obstacles in their path.

asthma warrior climbing up obstacle smiling
Courtesy of Christina Ayala

As a child, asthma was the giant boulder I carried on my back. As I became mentally tough, asthma became my superpower. It led me to work harder, testing the boundaries and limitations I bestowed upon myself.

My journey with asthma brought me to a fulfilling career, where I am able to help others feel fulfilled and make healthier choices. I’ve learned we can allow our experiences to make us or break us. There are answers out there if we keep searching. Healing begins with you, your mindset, and your choices.”

asthma warrior takes a selfie wearing a medal from completing a race
Courtesy of Christina Ayala

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Christina Ayala, RN, Self-Care Coach of Las Vegas NV. You can follow her journey on Facebook and her website. Join the Love What Matters family and subscribe to our newsletter.

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