Asthma Update (500 miles)

So much has changed for me since I started hiking the AT that it already seems strange to think back to the struggles I was having with my health. Before I left was having trouble climbing stairs, walking, and sometimes would even have to sit to take my shower because I lacked the energy to stand. It always reminded me of the scene in the Princess Bride where Wesley says, “maybe I am only lying her because I lack the strength to stand'”

Climbing the stairs up to my third floor apartment was a momentous task (never mind climbing mountains). I’d make it to each landing (or sometimes just up a couple of steps) and then I’d stop and stare accusingly at the next flight of stairs as if they were tormenting me on purpose. I would lean heavily on the railing, remember that I’d just used my rescue inhaler an hour ago and then I would pout for a minute as I waited and hoped that my breath would come back. Eventually I’d make it into my apartment and then flop down on my couch or bed for a while to recover.

Now I’m hiking 15+ miles a day, mountains and all! I haven’t tapered off of my daily asthma meds yet, but I have gone from watching the clock to see if I could use my rescue inhaler again (4+ times a day) to using it once a day at the most. I haven’t had an asthma attack in at least two weeks.

On the flat and/or downhill sections of the trail I have no trouble keeping up with the other thru-hikers, and am faster than many. The uphill sections I still tend to be just a little bit slower than everyone else on.

The uphill sections are also the sections where the change in my breathing is the most obvious. At the beginning, even the mild uphills would leave me gasping for breath. I would count the number of steps I was taking between breaks. First 20 steps, then 50, then 80… After a few weeks went by I stopped counting. I didn’t need to motivate myself to keep moving with the promise that I’d get to take a break soon anymore.

The longer I hike, the stronger my lungs and body seem to get, and the fewer breaks I need to take on those uphills. I like that I can really feel the difference and progress that I’m making and that even after 500 miles I’m still feeling gradual changes. Someone on the trail told me that it takes at least 8 weeks to get your body into peak physical condition (if you’re a 19 yet old in the army). I don’t know how true it is, but I like the thought because it means that that the best is yet to come for my lungs and for my body.

Prologue: Why I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail

The short answer is asthma. I’ve decided to leave my existing life behind to go hike more than 2,000 miles along the Appalachian Trail (AT) because I’m sick and tired of asthma controlling my life. Though it sounds crazy, I actually think that this trek will be good for my health and good for my asthma. How can hiking the AT possibly help make my asthma better? To understand why I think that this isn’t a completely crazy plan I need to provide you with some back story:

I have occupational asthma. This means that there is something associated with my job that literally takes my breath away. I didn’t know that becoming *literally* allergic to your job was something that could happen when I starting working in a neuroscience lab six years ago. I was excited about my job and learning how to run electrophysiological experiments and didn’t realize at first that I was getting increasingly fatigued and sicker as the years started to roll by. I figured maybe it was just stress, or the fact that I wasn’t in my early twenties anymore. I figured that it just meant that I needed to work harder to push through it. Unfortunately it just seemed to get worse and worse. Eventually it got so bad that I ended up getting admitted to the hospital and was diagnosed with occupational asthma. Then the question was, what was I allergic to? We assumed that it was mice and rats since that’s what the people in my lab worked with, so our lab took precautions to reduce/eliminate my exposure to airborne allergies associated with the animals. Unfortunately I continued having breathing problems. Eventually we figured out that what triggered my asthma the most was when our colleagues down the hall were working with guinea pigs. I wasn’t even working with the damn things, but they were still making me sick.

As it turns out, developing an allergy to work is incredibly common if you work someplace with guinea pigs, 80% of people that are exposed to guinea pigs in their workplace develop an allergy to them. I am part of the unfortunate 20% of that group that goes on to develop asthma. Developing an allergy to guinea pigs is a slow and insidious process that takes place over the course of 3-4 yrs and eerily matched the timeline over which my breathing troubles developed. I had to stop running experiments, and I moved my office to a different floor, but by then I had developed an extreme sensitivity to seemingly all rodent based airborne allergens (guinea pig, rat, mouse, and rabbit). I ended up not being able to breath whenever my boss sat down to talk to me (she eventually ended up figuring out that it was a result of her angora sweaters! Unbeknownst to me she figured out that the sweaters were the trigger and when she stopped wearing them and I was able to breath around her again). With so many of my colleagues working with animals, my breathing would get worse just being in the building. Things got so bad that even outside of lab I started losing my breath and voice, typically around friends who had pet guinea pigs. Decontamination showers started to become routine for me (on days I went into lab) and for my friends and their children before they could hug me. It seemed like allergies and asthma were starting to rule my life. I talked to my doctor and I talked to the occupational health personnel about my occupational asthma, and they told me that I didn’t really have I choice… I was going to have to leave my job. It felt so unfair. I had dedicated so much to my career and now it was making me sick and I was going to have to leave.

They are right though, when you can’t breath you don’t really have a choice. You have to fix the glitch. I have to focus on my health. Since hiking the AT has been a lifelong dream of mine, it seemed like life was giving me the perfect opportunity to walk away from my job… and to keep walking for another 2,000 miles. I hope that this decision to hike the AT will have the side effect of forcing me to focus on my health, to get into shape, and to modify a lot of bad habits that I’ve developed in the past few years as I’ve been struggling to keep my head above water. Struggling to deal with what has felt like a continual onslaught of both physical and emotional challenges. I am really looking forward to this trip. Looking forward to stepping away from the routine of my life and to doing something incredibly different with my time for a while. When I finish hiking the AT I don’t know whether or not I will return to academia and the career to which I’ve dedicated my entire adult life. I do know that I have to prioritize my health over my career, and that I will have to make some changes. I’m looking forward to the changes in perspective that I think will inevitably result from this journey.

I can’t believe that in about a month I will be flying to Georgia to start hiking the AT. I can’t wait!