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HEALTH MATTERS: Fighting for air is way of life for people with asthma

Spring is in the air and so are all the things that make breathing difficult for Carey Poindexter.

He has fought all his life to overcome a multitude of medical challenges including normal breathing.

At birth, his umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck twice and knotted twice. According to BabyMed.com, a cord wrapped around the baby’s neck is seen in about two or three out of 10 normal deliveries.

When a nuchal cord (or cord-around-the neck) is compressed, it can cause mild respiratory distress and blocked or slow blood flow through the umbilical vessels. Rarely does a nuchal cord cut off oxygen or strangle a baby. Some studies have shown that the nuchal cord can affect the outcome of delivery and may have long-term effects on the infant.

When Poindexter was born, he couldn’t breathe through his nose. Eventually, he was diagnosed with asthma.

“His doctors told me that Carey would not live to see his 10th birthday,” his mother Vikita said.

Asthma, an incurable chronic lung disease, is manageable but can flare up any time. Without proper treatment, asthma can be dangerous, even fatal. Asthma is diagnosed based on medical history, a physical exam and test results.

“Asthma does not run in our immediate family, but lung cancer does,” Vikita said. Diagnosis can be difficult in children under 5. Asthma is different for each person. Poindexter’s grandmother died from lung cancer before he was born.

She said that the initial doctors also based their assessment about her son’s short life span on the scarring inside his lungs from being a mouth breather and his severe food and environmental allergies, such as dairy, wheat, eggs, corn, chocolate, beef, broccoli and type of nuts.

“He can go into an allergic shock, if any of those triggers are near him,” she said. “You have less than a minute to counteract the reaction.”

He is also allergic to grass, dust, mold, mildew, carpet fibers, pollen and cats.

Source: Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Services

“At a very young age, he was even allergic to the ink in magazines,” Vikita said. He has since built up an immune system to tolerate the ink.

The National Institutes of Health reports that 26 million Americans are affected and nearly 7 million are children, with more boys being affected than girls. Among the millions of faces of asthma are Olympic triple gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee, pro football player Jerome Bettis, rapper DMX, Harlem Globetrotter Julian “Zeus” McClurkin, former President Bill Clinton and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson.

“For as long as I can remember, my chest always feels tight,” Poindexter said. “Imagine breathing through a straw, that’s what it’s like. My symptoms are shortness of breath, wheezing, dizziness, coughing and I tend to get a lot of mucous in my chest, which makes it harder for me to breath and easier to get pneumonia.”

As a result of his chronic illness, asthma attacks and allergic reactions, Poindexter has been hospitalized 26 times, not including emergency room and doctor visits.

“He’s been in intensive care four times and on a respirator once,” said his mother. “He has had four surgeries.”

Poindexter takes seven medications daily to manage his asthma and other medical challenges. He calls them challenges because “challenges you can overcome.”

Poindexter is aware of the many triggers that can cause his airways to narrow including exercise.

Understanding asthma is a challenge in most communities. One of the myths is that you can outgrow asthma. The truth is it is a lifelong disease. Immune systems can change throughout a lifetime along with asthma symptoms, but a trigger can cause a flare up at any time.

Research shows that it is best not to avoid it because physical activity is important for health. Poindexter earned a green belt in keichu do, a martial arts training that is known for its preparation for daily life spiritually, mentally and physically. Poindexter also enjoys golf, video games, hanging out with his friends and playing with his dog, Duke.

“My son has a weakened respiratory system and I was determined to ensure that Carey would surpass the 10 years the doctors said he would live,” said Vikita, the owner of Poindexter Consulting Group, a certified management and human resources consulting firm. She understands the intricacies of the Americans With Disabilities Act and Family Medical Leave Act.

“I did my research, developed an asthma action plan and found a way.”

The medications he needed were not FDA approved.

“I had to get the medications from Canada,” she said. “When he turned 3, the medications were finally available in the states.”

The biggest challenge was to get a team of doctors to handle his care. From the time he was 2 until now, Poindexter’s team of physicians includes an asthma and allergy specialist, a cardiologist an otolaryngologist and a pulmonologist.

“Carey didn’t get the level of antibodies that a newborn gets until he was 1 year old,” Vikita said. “To compensate, I gave him breast milk until he turned 3, not from breastfeeding but from drinking it from a glass.”

Poindexter is never without his inhaler or other medications that help him survive.

“Not once has Carey ever questioned or asked why me,” said his mother. “His philosophy is that ‘we all suffer from something, mine just happened to be lung disease.’”

Poindexter has become a self-proclaimed junior ambassador for the American Lung Association.

“My three main goals were education, awareness and fundraising,” he said. “In my role as the junior ambassador for four years, I donated more $15,000 to the American Lung Association through annual fundraising activities such as the Artist for Air benefit concerts and 5K walks.”

His contributions have provided medical research to reduce the number of medications a child must take to manage his or her asthma. His efforts have been lauded by President Barack Obama and awarded as a recipient of the Ford Motor Company Fund Unsung Hero Award, among other recognitions.

He named his mission, “Fighting for Air,” based on his own experiences with the purpose to educate people how to manage and cope with lung disease, especially asthma. He recruited some of his fellow asthmatics to become junior ambassadors to broaden the knowledge of lung disease.

“With knowledge, careful management and medication, no one should die from asthma,” Poindexter said.

Figure A shows the location of the lungs and airways in the body. Figure B shows a cross-section of a normal airway. Figure C shows a cross-section of an airway during asthma symptoms. Sometimes asthma symptoms are mild and go away on their own or after minimal treatment with asthma medicine. When symptoms get more intense and/or more symptoms occur, you’re having an asthma attack. Asthma attacks also are called flareups or exacerbations. Severe asthma attacks may require emergency care, and they can be fatal. Source: National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

Poindexter speaks to city councils, schools, organizations, city, county and state elected officials to help them understand the importance of fighting for clean air. While most people check the weather and the traffic flow, Poindexter checks the air quality.

“I have a daily routine of checking the air quality to make sure it is acceptable for me to breathe outdoors,” he said. Poindexter also uses a peak flow meter to determine how well his lungs are performing.

The life-long battle for the Poindexter family has had many challenges but, with perseverance and a strong faith, Poindexter celebrated his 18th birthday last Nov. 20.

“I am thankful to be allowed to breathe another year,” he said.

Breathing can be difficult for him but he maintains a very optimistic attitude.

Carey says he knows that God has blessed him to surpass the doctor’s expectations and he gives all honor and praise to Him. He also knows that without the help of his team of physicians to ensure that he has the best medications and treatments that is needed, he probably wouldn’t be alive today.

Poindexter’s motto is, “Just because you have asthma, you just can’t let it get you down.”

He graduated high school early with a 4.5 grade point average and currently attends California Baptist University in Riverside, where he is enrolled in a five-year master’s degree program majoring in architecture. Poindexter plans to own several restaurants to accommodate people with food allergies.

“I intend to continue to educate people about lung diseases,” he said.

Poindexter is proof that you can can live with asthma and lead a relatively normal, active life.

“Breathing for me is an everyday struggle; it is amazing to see how the healthy takes what seems like a simple thing for granted,” Poindexter said. “My goal is for no child to have to fight for air.”

Resources:

American Lung Association – www.lung.org

Carey Poindexter – www.careypoindexter.org

National Institutes of Health – www.nih.gov

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute – www.nhlbi.nih.gov

Mayo Clinic – www.mayo.edu

Marie Y. Lemelle, MBA, a public relations consultant, is the owner of Platinum Star PR and can be reached on Twitter @PlatinumStar or Instagram @PlatinumStarPR. Send “Health Matters” related questions to healthmatters@wavepublication.com and look for her column in The Wave.