Melissa Grimm, 32, lives and breathes lung health—and it’s not just because she and her husband, Chip, 31, are both respiratory therapists in eastern Ohio. Melissa and the couple’s four children, who range in age from 7 to 14, all have struggled with asthma for years.
Andrew, 14, has had the toughest time, especially as a toddler. When he wasn’t in the hospital with severe breathing problems, he was using inhalers and breathing machines. And it was a concern for her children’s—and her own—lung health that prompted Grimm to leave behind her career as a paralegal for the world of black lung disease and breathing exercises as a respiratory therapist.
“I’m big into understanding exactly what I’m doing (when health is concerned),” says Grimm, “and I didn’t understand the treatments and medicines we were taking. I wanted to help my children and myself, but it also sounded appealing to help other people who had this issue.”
And the “issue” of lung health is a big one in the Grimms’ hometown of Dillonvale, Ohio (pop. 3,716). Dillonvale is in coal mining country and near a coal-fired power plant, a major source for “particulate matter”—tiny bits of dust, chemicals or metals that float in the air and get breathed into the lungs.
Grimm didn’t realize how the air in Dillonvale was contributing to her family’s asthma problems until they visited North Carolina years ago. “The entire time we were there, Andrew didn’t have a single episode, but as soon as we got back home, he had to use inhalers again,” she recalls. “The air (in North Carolina) was just so much more visibly clear.”
Most people associate breathing problems with the smoke and smog of big cities, but, whether wafting out of smokestacks, billowing behind tractors or flying off trucks as they barrel down the road, lung-clogging particulate matter can plague small towns and rural areas, too.
Grimm, who is project director for the Respiratory and Occupational Lung Disease Clinic at the East Ohio Regional Hospital in Martins Ferry (pop. 7,226), regularly treats men who have worked in coal mines all their lives, and their wives, who often have breathing problems just from being exposed to the dust brought home on their husbands’ clothes.
Once in the lungs, particulate matter can accumulate, making it harder to breathe, and leading to lung diseases such as chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or asthma. Ongoing exposure to air pollution also can trigger an attack by the body’s immune system, leading to inflammation in the lungs, blood vessels and cardiovascular system, which can increase the risk of heart attack.
But despite the risks, taking a few simple steps can help you breathe a sigh of relief about the health of your lungs. If you work in a factory or on a farm—or are simply mowing the lawn—Grimm recommends using a filter mask to keep dust and other particles out of your lungs. Air pollution levels tend to be highest in the afternoon, so it’s best to exercise or do strenuous outdoor work in the mornings and evenings. To check the particulate matter levels in your area, visit www.airnow.gov, a website that tracks and forecasts air quality across the nation.
Grimm has learned that her kids are especially sensitive to cigarette smoke, so the family tries to avoid places where they know people will be smoking. And Andrew gets to steer clear of at least one chore around the house: yard work, which churns up dust that can trigger his asthma.
Another way to avoid serious lung problems is to see a doctor if you notice persistent wheezing, coughing or shortness of breath. Otherwise healthy adults often think difficulty breathing is just a sign of aging or of being out shape, says Lance Lothert, a respiratory therapist at Redwood Area Hospital in Redwood Falls, Minn. (pop. 5,459).
“They don’t realize that coughing and shortness of breath is respiratory disease catching up with them, so they don’t go to the doctor to get the problems checked out,” he says.
Once under a doctor’s care, patients can start breathing exercises and be counseled on diet, both of which can put them on a path to better breathing.