The first time I wore an N95 mask I was in elementary school, probably around age 10. For my father, the mask solved a parental paradox: His asthmatic daughter was horse-crazy, and also allergic to hay.
Not sniffly-sneezy allergic, but paralyzed-by-bronchial-constriction, get-out-of-the-barn-or-go-to-the-hospital allergic.
We made the discovery at a church hayride one crisp fall night. In a mild panic, my father unearthed me gasping from a pile of dried grass thrown by other children, signaled for the tractor driver to stop, and carried me across a cornfield to the campfire for water, hot cider and rest.
At that point we knew I had asthma, but not how quickly I could go from fine to nearly suffocating. Initially, my worst trigger was fresh-cut grass, but soon any type of prolonged outdoor exertion had me heaving. Doctors had limited options for treating children with asthma back then, and my pediatrician prescribed a capsule too big for me to swallow. (For one horrible, hot summer when I was around 8, every morning and evening my mother fed me yogurt or applesauce covered with the pill’s bitter, crunchy contents. It would be two decades before I could eat yogurt again.)
Thankfully, as I grew, treatments did, too. I learned to use inhalers — albuterol for emergencies and a mild steroid for maintenance. Still, hay was a problem, and it became very clear parents that horses were not an interest I would outgrow like My Little Pony.
If I wanted a horse of my own, I would have to take care of it, and that meant finding a safe way to handle straw and hay.
My father, a chemical engineer, figured out that an N95 mask was the solution. Bulbous, white and strapped to my head with tight rubber bands, the mask made me look ridiculous — like Pippi Longstocking pretending to be a stormtrooper — but it worked. I could clean stalls and feed my neighbor’s horses, forking in fresh straw and carrying fresh timothy grass and alfalfa to the racks.
Because I wore a mask, I could have asthma and I could have a horse of my own.
Although as an adult I don’t spend nearly as much time in barns as I would like, I still have to manage my chronic health condition. Just like not running outside at certain times of year and driving around with a nebulizer in the back of my car, masking up will always be part of that management. So it pains me deeply, like a sharp tightness in my chest, to hear some suggest that those with asthma have an automatic excuse for not wearing masks during the covid-19 pandemic.
Granted, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that those who have trouble breathing shouldn’t wear masks, but it’s worth noting that wearing a mask does not decrease oxygen levels. Masks may be uncomfortable, but in most cases they don’t do harm. (And their benefits, of course, have been well-documented.)
With the obvious caveat that I’m not a doctor — just a patient who spent far too many childhood nights hunched over a vaporizer struggling to breathe — let me share an observation. A person wheezing so badly that he feels a fabric face covering prevents air from passing into his lungs is probably in serious trouble. If this person has exercise- or allergy-induced asthma, they almost certainly need emergency care for an attack, or they need to see a specialist for better symptom management. Either way, the mask is most likely not the origin of the problem.
One of the worst attacks I’ve had as an adult occurred when I traveled to Florida for a job interview. Early on the second morning, I insisted on walking four blocks from my hotel to the Tampa Bay Times newsroom rather than taking a cab. This was foolish. All I had was a carry-on suitcase, yet I arrived struggling to breathe after using my emergency inhaler and shaking from the pharmaceutical adrenalin that forced my bronchial tubes open. I got the job but turned it down, reluctant to live in a climate where having asthma meant I could not walk four blocks uphill in October.
A few years later, another job opportunity came my way, this time in Minnesota. “But your asthma!” a few friends warned, knowing cold, dry air could be as difficult for me as high temperatures and humidity. However, frigid temperatures allow me to deploy another asthma management tactic besides albuterol: I can wear a mask.
Not an N95, although that could work, but a medium-weight, tightly woven scarf or balaclava. If I breathe slowly through my covered nose, the air that reaches my lungs is warm enough not to paralyze bronchial tubes. I’ll never run a mile when the thermometer is below 40, but I can manage, as I did for a full carless year in Minnesota.
Do I still make poor judgment calls sometimes? Sure, just like I did as a stubborn kid who should have skipped the church hayride. When I get sick, what would for most people be a pesky respiratory infection, like a cold, can fester into asthmatic bronchitis.
In the same way I’m prone to bronchitis, I may be prone to complications from covid-19.
Living with asthma has meant living a life of strategic sacrifices (no dream job in Florida) and compromises (no running in Minneapolis winters). Above all, it has meant making smart choices. As one horse-crazy kid learned 25 years ago, sometimes wearing a mask is necessary to care for yourself — and the creatures you love.