On May 10, I trekked downtown to the Rayburn Building to witness Allergy & Asthma Day Capitol Hill 2012, sponsored by AANMA (Allergy and Asthma Network Mothers of Asthmatics). It was inspiring to see a room crowded to overflowing with doctors, concerned parents, and congressional staff, all talking through the FDA's proposed changes to how allergy medications are prescribed. To summarize the dilemma at hand: kiosk consultations and over-the-counter distribution of such medications as EpiPens would ease access for some, but could undermine the critical infrastructure of diagnosis and advice tailored to the patient.
I met Charles G. Thiel, who invented the metered dose inhaler in 1956, and the four amazing girls in the photo above. They were the under-18 finalists for this year's "Ultimate Inhaler Contest," in which the AANMA invited inhaler designs that were more attractive, efficient, and fun. My favorite was the "Unisaur," an "Inhaler/Holding Chamber Combo" designed by twelve-year-old Rachael Blaine, of Manchester, PA. (She says unisaur; I say narwhal.) Holding chambers, also caused spacers, were introduced to inhaler usage in the early '90s. Until then kids like me tended to jam the inhaler tightly in our mouths, depressing the spray in a way that coated the back of the throat rather than dispersing and reaching the airway it was designed to help. What can I say? That silver taste was comforting, especially when in the grip of an asthma attack. With a spacer, the metered dose has a chance to aerate post-expulsion and be breathed in, rather than pseudo-swallowed.
This year's theme was celebrating "Innovations in Technology," so AANMA had set up a table display of outdated medical treatments for asthma and allergies. Dr. R. Schiffman's Asthmador Cigarettes, "to relieve the distress of bronchial asthmatic paroxysms." (Active ingredients: Stramonium and Belladonna.) Clima-maske, anyone? It all seems so surreal and awkward as to be a joke.
But then, under glass, I saw it: first spacer I'd ever been given. A baby blue, collapsible canister that predates today's rigid aerochambers. I'd hated that thing. O how it wheezed like an accordion. O how spit crusted around its poorly-designed mouthpiece.
If you'd have told me in MFA days that my career as an author would bring me down to Capitol Hill on a Wednesday morning, or have me posing for photos with kids, I'd have thought you were crazy. I never expected this part of my identity--the perils and hoop-jumping of asthma and allergy--to be on the pages of a book. For that matter, I never expected to be memoirist; I thought I'd always have that veil of poetry, no matter how flimsy and artificial, protecting me from intrusive interpretations of my work.
Now my creative life and my personal life are one. On a bad day, that leaves me feeling exposed, or in over my head--asked to counsel beyond my qualifications. On a good day I make incredible, insightful connections with people who are so excited to see sympathetic experiences on the page. And I find myself wondering where to go from here. These conversations, these meetings, these days of advocacy: they change lives. Including mine. But I have to let it all aerate before I breathe it in, and before I decide what the next book will be. This summer is my spacer.