The Terrifying Reality Of Asthma

New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid was traversing some godforsaken desert last week, sneaking out of Syria to report on news no one else was brave enough to report on when a sudden asthma attack flared up and killed him. And back here in America all I could think was: “Where the hell is my asthma inhaler?”

It had fallen out of my pocket on a Monday night, setting off a state of panic reserved for crises in a post-health insurance America. If you’re afflicted with asthma, the inhaler (colloquially the “puffer” or just “haler”) is the only security blanket you really care about — aspirin, Claritin and Epipens be damned. Which leads you to carrying one around at all times, especially in the dead of winter when the old gray winds conspire to grab your lungs in a dry, icy hand and pinch them to the point of exasperated panting.

While Shadid was dying of a terrible asthma attack in apparent reaction to a horse, I was running around Brooklyn trying to find my last inhaler. As I began my quest, I caught updates on Twitter about Shadid, one of my journalism heroes, a reporter of inscrutable bad-assery whose exploits in Iraq I’d been following since the days I’d grab the Washington Post on my way to journalism class in college. He was one of those no-nonsense foreign reporters I always imagined myself being if only I could learn Arabic and wasn’t born with this damned white skin.

He died in the desert on his way to cover one of the most important events taking place in the world, while all the big news outlets like CNN worried about where to place their establishing shots for the Whitney Houston funeral (and the subsequent five hours of live coverage). He’d been shot and held captive in Libya before, but it was a simple inflammation of airways that felled him.


Some people have terrible asthma, the kind that sends you to a hospital when blast after blast from the inhaler won’t release your air flow from its chronic prison. They hook you up to a machine that pumps what feels like steam into your lungs. Mine is just a sometimes spark of raspy breath that won’t expunge itself no matter how many times I cough, and can be set off by something as mundane as a change in temperature from inside to outside or as intense as a 10-mile run. My worst attacks are ignited by a few choice catalysts: cigarettes, cats, winter. I could live in a world absent all three of these, for reasons that have nothing to do with asthma.

But if you’re not among the afflicted, here’s how you can imagine what it’s like to have an attack: take a bendy straw, put it into your mouth, and try to breath from it for two hours while holding your nose. And then at the end of two hours, throw some sand in the top of the straw and try to do it for another two hours.


As Shadid was about to meet his end via a seizure of the breathing passages, I was rummaging through various bar couches and lost-and-found bins, hoping someone, somewhere, had found this thing and put it aside. I was doing a walk of shame through Brooklyn, approaching bartenders before their night crowd had arrived, saying things like “I AM A NERD AND I LOST SOMETHING NERDY HERE ON MONDAY NIGHT AND OH GOD I HOPE YOU FIND IT.”

One cute brunette bartender looked at me with pity eyes and said, “Wow, we’re just laying it all on the table, aren’t we?” before telling me that it was nowhere to be found. And then another bar, another sympathetic bartender, another sad look, but no luck.

When I mentioned that I was uninsured, the one thing keeping me from treating this like a lost pair of sunglasses, I got a renewed sense of resolve from the object hunters, but that still wasn’t enough to make it appear. A “Sorry, honey” and a sad smirk was the best I got.


The news about Shadid sent me into shock, not just for the loss to our nation’s journalistic corps, but for the sheer terror at the circumstances of his death. Blow me up, run me over with a car, shoot me in the slums of Baltimore or let me die in a plane on the way to cover a new Steak & Shake opening in Peoria, but dear journalism gods above, don’t let me die of a mundane asthma attack while on assignment.

My terror stems from an incident on the opposite end of the journalism danger spectrum from what Shadid was doing: Years ago in my first post-college gig working for a chain of weekly papers in suburban Maryland, I was assigned to cover a human interest piece about a woman on the outskirts of Bowie who adopted all kinds of creatures and cared for them on her farm: peacocks, chickens, alpacas, a god-awful feral cat trailer that smelled like levels one through six of my own personal hell, and, of course, horses.

The woman told me to pet the horses to see that they were friendly and deserved to be loved, which I did. I have no qualms with horses, but shortly after the episode I fled to my Celica and sped back to my newsroom, eyes brutally red, itchy and runny and lungs screaming in protest because — who knew? — horse hair and asthma allergies don’t mix. My trip to the farm led to an entire weekend of allergic reactions that turned me into a wheezy, miserable mess, curled up on my bed wondering if this job would ever get me anything better than (had I known about Shadid’s eventual fate) a future connection to a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.


There’s something lonely and terrible about dying by asthma attack. Who knows if, in the frenzy of the moment, Shadid even had time to grab a puffer?  The experience must feel like the utmost instance of your body conspiring against you. It tries to fight off something that it considers an allergen and BAM, it goes into system lockdown in the desert, hours from the nearest hospital, waiting for a reboot that never comes; your death nothing more than a medical anomaly that barely raises as a blip in one of the most volatile places on Earth. Shadid is gone, and we’re left with his legacy as an asthma sufferer who ventured deep into the warring wastelands of Africa to bring you the stories that mattered, sacrificing everything to the cause.


Three days after Shadid died, I finally found the damn thing, not in a bar at all, or in a desert, but wedged between my bed and nightstand, probably lost there after a middle of the night attack of wheezing that ripped me from my sleep. It looked different than before, no longer just a safety blanket but now a stark reminder of how fragile health can be, even when there are no stray horses or barren deserts to contend with.

That’s why I make a call today to all fellow asthma sufferers to stand up! Raise your puffer high and toast one to a fallen hero! Inhale one big medicated breath in honor of all the puffs he never got to take. TC mark

image – Shutterstock

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  • Anne

    fuck you, man. Your “damned white skin” lets you do everything. 
    Sorry, I stopped reading after that stupid line. 

    • excuse me...

       Privilege isn’t unknown to people with white skin.  It is undeserved but what is someone to do that is born with it? A feeling of guilt and shame often accompany the brutal realization of how much skin color can privilege someone.  Maybe the “damned white skin” is a reference to this feeling, perhaps a wish that it DIDN’T let him do everything…

      • Jonathan Cribbs

        Yes. Yes, I totally think that’s what he means.

    • Anonymous

      Then you clearly missed the point of the whole article. Also, in case you didn’t know, being extremely white/American-looking in the Middle East is much more of a disadvantage than being dark skinned. Relax and don’t be so quick to see insults where there aren’t any.

      • Whoathere

        Alexis gets it, Anne does not.

  • guest

    Someone I knew died from an asthma attack in his sleep. I can’t imagine anything worse than having a dream so bad that it sent you into an attack, and then waking up to an even worse nightmare.

  • Anonymous

    thank you! as an asthma sufferer, i finally have health insurance but the meds i need (Advair) don’t have a generic so even with insurance I have to pay $180 a month just to breathe!! people who have never had to fight for a breath just don’t get how darn beautiful it is to be able to breathe. 

  • Luke F.

    I have asthma! And it can be bad! I even have one of those ‘steam machines’ or ‘peace pipes’ as my mom referred to it when I was younger (technically called a nebulizer)…

    Anyway, my point is this.. the trick is to get multiple inhalers and just keep them EVERYWHERE. I keep an inhaler in every jacket and in random spots throughout my apartment (i.e. next to the bed).  I highly recommend this technique. I do empathize though, losing your inhaler – even when you keep them all over the place like that girl in Signs who has glasses of water everywhere – is about the shittiest thing that happens to me on a regular basis.

    I’m  glad you found it!

  • Guest

    I lost my mum to asthma.  It is a very serious illness that shouldn’t be taken lightly.  It’s such a traitor and every second counts.

  • SCB

    I too suffer from asthma and I think this is a great article. It’s hard to describe the terror of being unable to inhale. Mine happens to be very severe, and I must agree that keeping puffers EVERYWHERE is the way to go. I can’t not bring a purse to a bar, because puffers don’t fit into the pockets of tight jeans. I also have a nebulizer. My friends who I lived in residence with at university refer to it as my darth vader mask and it is the definition of sexiness. (but in all seriousness, not breathing is not sexy, so it kinda is).  Fortunately I’m Canadian and therefore am able to keep myself stocked in multiple inhalers (f-yes health care)
    I actually had an asthma attack while swimming last year and almost died. I’ve have been rushed to the hospital more than once and it’s not rare for me to wake up and no be able to breath. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day I die from it, and that scares me endlessly.

  • Volare

    When I was a kid, my mom told me my nebulizer made me sound like Darth Vader, and I was ok with having asthma from there on out. 

    • Bbabu06

      I owe my life to the nebulizer. Also I loved saying “Luke, I am your father.” whilist doing a breathing treatment.

  • Guest

    So, asthma doesn’t bother me so much anymore (seriously Advair, you rock), but i do suffer from my foreign mother pronouncing “nebulizer” as “nipple-izer” every. single. time.

  • Tamara

    I’m in total shock. I too am an asthma sufferer and know it’s terrifying and sucks so much. But I live in New Zealand where until now, I took our health system for granted. I knew things were different in the US, but not that much.
    When I have an attack, going to the accident and emergency part of the hospital is free. My inhalers are $3 each and a Doctors visit to have a check up etc is about $40. We then have further discounts for the lower income earners which can make prescriptions free and Doctors visits only $20.
    I have multiple inhalers, which I keep in all sorts of places. I can’t imagine relying on the one that much. I can’t imagine paying $180 per month just to breathe.
    We have private health insurance here but it’s for things like jumping the waiting list if you need surgery, or paying for private hospital treatment and tests.

  • KK

    A teacher of ours died from an asthma attack when she was at a Christmas party. She was dancing with her dad and had left her inhaler in the car. Only then did I realise how much asthma impinges on the everyday life of a sufferer. I am not an asthmatic but I do have a weak heart and am rone to lung infections, and not being able to breathe is the scariest hing in the world, and I know how easily you can start panicking. Good article.

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