Helping One Family Breathe a Little Easier

Antoinette Johnson, shown with mother Karen, has battled asthma all her life.
Antoinette Johnson, shown with mother Karen, has battled asthma all her life. (By Julia Feldmeier -- The Washington Post)
By John Kelly
Wednesday, January 3, 2007

E very breath is a battle when you suffer from asthma. A clinic at Children's Hospital helps give asthma sufferers a shot at normalcy. My assistant, Julia Feldmeier, has the story.

Karen Johnson yawns. Understandably so -- she was up last night from 1 to 3:30 a.m., comforting her youngest daughter, Marguerite.

Marguerite, 7, has asthma. It's a tricky disease, the way it inflames your airways, constricting them, making it harder and harder to breathe -- the way it keeps you up at night, wears you down and renders you too exhausted to go to school the next morning.

Karen figures that Marguerite, a second-grader at Hyde Leadership Public Charter School in Northeast Washington, has missed two or three days of school each week for two months -- a troubling number of absences for a girl who prides herself on making the honor roll every quarter. They're hopeful that the situation will get better: Just last week, Karen and Marguerite attended the Impact DC Asthma Clinic at Children's Hospital, a comprehensive asthma education program.

"Our emphasis is on controlling the asthma and getting the kids to have as normal a life as possible," says Dr. Stephen Teach, medical director of the clinic. "We want them to run and play, to sleep through the night and to avoid going to the emergency room."

More than 7,000 youth asthma-related visits are made to hospitals in the District every year, Teach says, and roughly 90 percent of those visits occur at Children's. According to the National Capital Asthma Coalition, more than one in 10 children in the metropolitan Washington region suffer from asthma.

Before Marguerite's asthma kicked in this summer, it was her sister Antoinette's asthma that kept their mother awake and prompted many late-night trips to Children's. Antoinette, 10, has battled asthma her whole life. Now, thanks to Impact DC, she's winning that battle.

Whereas Antoinette used to have two or three asthma attacks a week, turning blue in the face -- a "terrifying" feeling, she says -- she's only had three attacks since she went to Impact DC in July 2005. Doctors placed her on a new medical action plan, one that centers on "controller" medications, designed to prevent attacks, rather than "reliever" medications. They gave her an allergen-reducing pillowcase cover and taught her to recognize asthma triggers. For Antoinette, attacks stem from inhaling excess dust at school, playing with the family cat or eating in bed -- a crumb-dropping habit that invites unwanted (and asthma-inducing) rodents.

The combination of medicine and awareness has given Antoinette the freedom to tackle activities such as cheerleading, dance and working on the stage crew for the school play. It's the kind of life a 10-year-old should have -- and one that Karen hopes Marguerite will soon lead.

So far, the controller medications aren't working as successfully for Marguerite as they have for Antoinette, and Marguerite's asthma attacks appear to be more anxiety-induced -- from stress or nightmares. This month, they'll meet with a pulmonary specialist at Children's to determine whether there are tears in Marguerite's lungs that might be contributing to her attacks, and they'll continue to practice the preventive measures taught at Impact DC.

All Karen wants is for her daughters to be happy and healthy -- and to sleep through the night. "Whatever's working, I'm all for it," she says.

The Breath of Life

Kids all over the Washington area benefit from the experts at Children's Hospital. And Children's Hospital benefits from the generosity of readers such as you. To be a part of our annual campaign to pay the hospital bills of poor children, make a check or money order payable to "Children's Hospital" and mail it to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

To donate online using a credit card, go to

To contribute by phone using Visa or MasterCard, call 202-334-5100 and follow the instructions on the recording.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company