Diamond Conway had tried to stay on top of her asthma. The 15-year-old was using her inhaler each day. Shortness of breath would get to her sometimes during color guard practice at Burke High School, but for the most part, she was able to push through it.
But a severe asthma attack on July 1 — Diamond stopped breathing for 20 minutes — left her with brain damage and a long recovery. Her family and doctors are cautioning others to take asthma seriously.
Diamond and her family were on their annual summer trip to Adventureland in Des Moines when the attack occurred. Diamond had spent the day at the park in the hot, humid summer weather and then the evening in a hotel pool and hot tub. The attack occurred that evening in the hot tub.
Now, almost two weeks later, Diamond is in intensive care at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha. She’s in serious condition.
Doctors and her family say there’s a hard lesson in this for everyone. Although families become accustomed to living with asthma, the disease is still deadly. And summer distractions pose their own risks, said Dr. Linda Ford, medical director of the Asthma and Allergy Center in Bellevue.
Vacations can throw off an asthmatic’s routines, such as monitoring lung capacity, or taking preventative medication. People are more likely to overlook emerging symptoms when they’re enjoying themselves on a vacation — a risk for anyone with asthma, regardless of severity, Ford said.
Heightened levels of pollen, mold and pollution can irritate breathing, she said. Even chlorine acts as an irritant, she and other doctors said.
Most people assume asthma attacks are sudden and random. But that’s not the case, Ford said.
“With asthma, the acute attack doesn’t start right then,” Ford said. “It starts several days before. If you’ve had asthma for a while, you just think ‘I’ll take my inhaler, it’ll be all right.’ It’s hard to know how bad you’re getting when you’ve had it for a long time.”
If Diamond had noticed any symptoms, she didn’t let on, said her mother, Kim Lukis. Her daughter uses a daily inhaler and had seemed fine that day, Lukis said, adding that it wasn’t unusual for her daughter not to mention breathing problems.
“She didn’t want anybody to know if she was short of breath,” Lukis said. “She didn’t like the attention.”
That’s not uncommon among teenagers, Ford said.
Doctors aren’t able to pinpoint what triggered Diamond’s asthma attack, although exposure to the chlorine in the hot tub was a likely factor, said her doctor, Casey Burg, who specializes in pulmonology at Children’s. A full day outside and the panic that comes with an asthma attack only made things worse, he said.
The best way to manage asthma, Ford says, is to closely follow an asthma action plan set by a doctor. Checking lung capacity with a peak flow device is essential. Patients are taught how to adjust their medications according to the device’s results. If the meter indicates lung capacity has entered the red zone, that’s when patients should call a doctor, Ford said.
Consistency is key, both Ford and Burg said.
“If your provider has recommended you be on a controller medicine, you make sure you take that as prescribed,” Burg said. “Don’t just take it as you need it. It needs to be taken every day to prevent your symptoms.”
That’s a message that Diamond’s mother echoes.
“As an asthmatic, when you’re short of breath, people need to know,” she said. “Don’t hide it — absolutely not.”
From 2000 to 2010, the rate of pediatric hospital stays for asthma decreased from 165 to 130 per 100,000, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Preventative medications are increasingly more effective, with new forms of treatment still rolling out, and doctors carefully plan asthma action plans with their patients.
Diamond’s cousin Ty O’Neal, 22, of Omaha has created a GoFundMe account to cover the family’s medical bills. As of Thursday evening, $2,645 had been raised.
The teenager’s relatives were as prepared for her asthma attack as they could have been. Her inhaler and breathing treatment were on hand. But it was still a shock, her mother said.
“You’ve just got to pay attention,” Lukis said. “Asthma is a serious thing. It’s not just a foofoo type of problem. It’s not the common cold. It’s chronic and it shows up when you don’t think it’s going to show up.”