The breath of life

Posted by

As an infant, soon after coming home for the first time, I had to be rushed back to the hospital because of a severe allergic reaction. My parents feared they would lose me. Tests showed my allergies were triggered by almost everything. At the time, we lived on a farm, surrounded by dogs and cats and all manner of plant and fungal allergens. My earliest memories include weekly visits to the doctor for shots. A kindly man, Doctor Österreicher would warn me of the coming stick, then praise me for my bravery when I didn’t cry. While I hated the shots, I loved my doctor because I knew he wanted to keep me safe.

Even with the shots, from earliest childhood until my teenage years I would have bad asthma attacks. Those who suffer from them know it can be terrifying. Not being able to breathe triggers those parts of the brain that fear immediate extinction. That was a time before epipens and nebulizers, so we relied on some syrupy medicine my mother would give me with a spoon. Usually, within half an hour or so I could feel the attack break, my breathing would clear up, and then I could rest. After the attack subsided, there followed an oceanic calm and then some of the deepest sleeps I’ve ever experienced.

My father had also been asthmatic as a child. He grew out of it, like I eventually would. But then he developed the problem again later in life, after we’d left the farm and moved to Baltimore. Those attacks were probably triggered by exposure to air-borne pollutants at the shipyard where he worked. After he moved on from that job the attacks never recurred. He once lost a crew mate to asthma. This was back in the 1930’s, when he was a young man working onboard ship. They’d been loading grain, and the floating cloud of aerosolized wheat dusting the ship provoked the man’s attack and he went to his cabin to lay down. My father was the one who found him, dead, blue in the face. That could have been my father, in another time, in another place. So my father learned not to follow his instincts during an attack, when the extinction panic drives us to ground, urging us to find a huddling place. That’s the primitive brain stem leading us down the wrong path. When the body fails your greatest hope is in the company of others who might help you.

All these memories and thoughts have come to the fore as I read the latest news about the fourth COVID wave, which may turn out to be the worst one yet. This recent rise in case numbers is especially tragic because it could have been avoided. I speak now primarily of the US experience, where we let our COVID response get caught up in the culture war, and where some think it’s acceptable to use children’s bodies as a battleground in that war. Pathological public health behavior knows no political boundaries, however. Similar events are playing out in other parts of the world too.

The rising case numbers are due to a lack of sufficient uptake of vaccines where they are available in some richer countries, combined with a lack of access to those same vaccines in poorer countries. In a few places in the US, vaccines are being thrown away because they’ve gone past their due date without being used. Meanwhile, countries in Africa and Latin America, as well as Australia, still have very low vaccination rates. As I write in August 2021, we are entering the third school year disrupted by COVID.

It’s now clear that the pandemic is far from over, but we’ve learned a lot since January 2020. We have better tools to fight it. Not only vaccines, but we also know that widespread masking and social distancing are effective, and we have better medical treatments if we get sick from COVID. Yet, in spite of those more hopeful developments, the public square is awash with anger, misinformation, and fear. These undercut our ability to fight the pandemic together so we can save lives and get back to a more normal life.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can and must do better. The longer this goes on, the more likely it is that an even more deadly variant will emerge. Now is the time to crush COVID globally. We have the tools, but we seem to lack the collective will.

I started this piece by talking about my personal history in order to show where I’m coming from. Having suffered from asthma in my youth, I know what it’s like to be unable to breathe. It’s not something I would wish on anyone. It marks you, and it’s something you never get over. Not really. After such an experience, you know in your bones how fragile your health can be, how easily it could all fall apart. Too many people have come to their ends gasping for breath because of COVID. This is a pernicious disease, and we have to defeat it as soon as possible.

So, if you haven’t already gotten the jab, please get fully vaccinated. Mask up when it’s called for by public health officials. And if you have children, please support good health policies in their schools. And, when it becomes possible, get your children vaccinated too. Do it for yourself, your children, and all the rest of us, too.

Image: Baltimore County Government, PDM-owner, via Wikimedia Commons.

The text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.