By Ellen Jean Hirst, Chicago Tribune reporter
June 18, 2013
On a hot summer day last year, Italia Falcon, now 13, started to panic because she couldn't breathe right.
"I was sitting down on the couch and my chest tightened," Italia said. "I tried to call my mom, but she didn't hear anything."
Thankfully, she said, her sister saw her struggling and found their mom. They rushed to the hospital, where Italia was treated for an asthma attack.
On Monday morning, Italia and a handful of other students from Hedges Elementary School who have asthma grabbed a wrench and tightened the bolts on three custom-designed "no-idling" signs, posted on school property along Winchester Avenue and 48th Street. For the past few months, the students have been learning how to control their asthma from Northwestern University staff in a program funded by the American Lung Association. They also learned about common triggers for asthma attacks and how they can educate their community about the disease.
"These kids didn't know they had a voice, (that) they could actually use it to make a change," said Dr. Ruchi Gupta, a pediatrician and associate professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "What we wanted to do was teach these kids that they have a voice."
Gupta said that when someone with asthma breathes in exhaust from idling vehicles, the fumes can make their airways inflamed and narrow — the onset of an asthma attack.
Italia said parents should know to turn their engines off while they wait for their children after school.
"There are a lot of cars passing by," Italia said, "and a lot of idling for a long time."
While asthma affects about 10 percent of children nationwide, at Hedges Elementary a quarter of middle school students have the chronic respiratory disease.
Minorities across Chicago have long been shown to be disproportionately affected by asthma. Experts have blamed a lack of access to health care and air contamination from secondhand smoke, roach waste, pet dander and industrial pollution. Johns Hopkins University is conducting a four-year study of African-Americans to see whether there's a genetic link.
But Gupta found an equally alarming disparity by neighborhood in her research. She said a large part of the problem could be a lack of education in certain communities. And when asthma goes untreated, she said, it only grows worse.
Brittney Mason, a first-year medical student at Northwestern, helped with the program, in part by debunking myths about asthma with parents.
"Some of the parents think asthma's contagious and they don't let their kids play with other kids with asthma," Mason said. "People don't know that asthma can be controlled and they can run just as much as other kids as long as they're taking their medication."
Sometimes symptoms can be controlled so well that children never have asthma attacks. Take Guadalupe Quintana, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Hedges. He said he has had asthma as long as he can remember, but his parents had him taking medications early on. And he can't recall ever having an attack.
Gupta spearheaded the asthma education and action project, but Chris Warren, a research project coordinator at Northwestern, and others helped the students develop public service announcements and other multimedia projects over a period of months to educate their community. Their projects can be viewed at hedgessmart.blogspot.com.
The 12 students with asthma have also presented their videos at school assemblies and handed out informational fliers to parents, staff and students. They also showed off their public service announcements at an Arts in the Yards community event June 7.
When a much larger but similar program was implemented in Detroit schools, researchers found that over time, students with asthma missed school less often, had asthma symptoms less often and even earned higher science grades.
After a pilot after-school program at Uplift Community High School last year in Uptown, Gupta was glad that a lengthened school day allowed her team to teach the Back of the Yards middle-schoolers during school hours, which increased attendance. Gupta and Warren are finalizing plans to head to Coles Elementary Language Academy in the South Chicago neighborhood in the fall.
Gupta said her vision since the start of the project has grown.
"My dream is to have a map of Chicago and you click on a neighborhood and you can see these videos and tools the students have made in each neighborhood," said Gupta, who wants to roll out a similar program teaching about obesity. "I would love to incorporate this all over Chicago."
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