As a parent, we try to protect our children against everything, the things we can control and those we cannot. The reality is, while we can’t protect them from everything, we can do everything in our power to advocate for our children’s best interests and, most importantly, their health. This is a lesson that I learned fairly recently, when my son Nicholas was diagnosed with asthma.
When Nicholas began wheezing and complaining of tightness in his chest, a red flag went up for me, and I immediately took him to our pediatrician. When we got the official diagnosis, I made a vow to do everything in my power to help Nicholas effectively control his asthma.
Many people may not realize the prevalence or seriousness of asthma. Roughly seven million children are living with this condition and if it’s not managed correctly, asthma can be life threatening. The good news is that with proper treatment, asthma can be managed without interference in everyday life. Nicholas is a perfect example of this and in fact, my life is as well.
For much of my teen years, I suffered with asthmatic symptoms before receiving a proper diagnosis. My parents, doctors, and coaches all attributed my chronic cough and frequent sickness to bronchitis. I never realized how physically inhibited I was by my symptoms until I graduated from high school and started tennis training full time. My coaches were the ones who called my parents aside and said, “We think something else is going on here. It’s not normal for her to be sick all of the time and fatigued so easily.”
I recall times when I pulled out of entire tennis tournaments or couldn’t finish tournaments because I just couldn’t keep up. Some people wondered if my symptoms were all in my head and suggested that maybe I wasn’t mentally tough enough to play tennis at a competitive level. It’s interesting how negative thoughts enter your mind and after awhile, I started to doubt myself as well. Thankfully, my parents advocated for me and they proactively took me to the Mayo Clinic where testing revealed I had asthma.
Getting the diagnosis brought on mixed emotions for me. Part of me was afraid. I thought, What will this mean for my future? Will I be able to continue playing tennis, a career completely dependent on my health and fitness?
But in truth, part of me was relieved. I finally knew what was wrong, and in working with my doctor to determine an effective treatment plan, I returned to playing and, eventually, went on to win national and international singles and doubles titles.
While asthma certainly isn’t the trait I would have chosen to share with my son, the fact that we both suffer from the same condition has helped to normalize it for him. With the right treatment, Nicholas operates day-to-day like an average six-year-old boy, and we’ve worked together to determine his triggers and how best to manage them.
As a working mother, it’s stressful to send Nicholas to school or events where I have to entrust others with the responsibility of making sure he’s feeling well and taking his medication when needed. I know I’m not alone, there are surely millions of other parents like me who feel the same way, whether their child lives with asthma or a similar condition.
My commitment to advocating for my children’s health recently led me to become the spokesperson for a program called EveryoneBreathe.com, which has been a huge passion for me. The Web site is chock full of great tools and tips, like the Asthma Action Plan, which I always share with Nicholas’ teachers, coaches, and the school nurse; everyone who might need to know what triggers his symptoms and what to do if he has an attack.
I feel so fortunate to have overcome my asthma challenges and achieve my professional dreams. It’s because of this that I’m so passionate about encouraging others to take charge of their situation, or take charge of their child’s situation, to be a champion against asthma.
Olympic Gold Medalist, Grand Slam Tennis Champion, ESPN and CBS Tennis Commentator, Mary Joe Fernandez now serves as the spokesperson for EveryoneBreathe.com, a Web site that educates and informs parents about asthma.