Laurel Griggs, a young Broadway actor, died earlier this month after suffering a “massive asthma attack.”
The 13-year-old’s grandfather confirmed the news to the New York Times. The star’s sudden death has shocked friends, family and those work worked with her.
Laurel, who was featured in productions like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Once, was rushed to hospital in New York City after she was found struggling to breathe.
Her father Andy Griggs told Page Six his daughter was born with asthma and took medication for the illness throughout her life.
“She said, ‘I don’t feel so good,’ which immediately set off all the alarms in my head,” Griggs told the publication. “She would never normally say something like that.”
He said his daughter went through a serious asthma attack three years ago, and the family had been monitoring her closely ever since.
The actor’s death is tragic and an indication no one should become complacent just because asthma is considered to be common, said Dr. Dhenuka Radhakrishnan, a pediatric respirologist who runs the asthma program at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) in Ottawa.
More than 3.8 million people in Canada live with asthma, and 850,000 of them are children under the age of 14, according to Asthma Canada. Every year, about 250 Canadians die from the inflammatory disease.
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In 2017, data from the Ontario Asthma Surveillance Information System, a population-based asthma registry, found the rate of asthma in children 17 and under was about 18.8 per cent.
“In some cases, it can be a fatal disease,” Radhakrishnan explained.
“It really takes a concerted effort to keep our children as healthy as possible… teamwork between the health care provider, family, school and even public policy.”
What is asthma, and what causes it?
Doctors don’t know what causes asthma, says Radhakrishnan, but it’s likely a combination of genetic factors that create a tendency towards the illness.
Asthma Canada defines the condition as a chronic disease caused by swelling, inflammation and tightening of the muscles around the airways, blocking the flow of air to the lungs.
If your child has the likelihood of developing asthma and is exposed to triggers that irritate them, this could lead to symptoms, Radhakrishnan said. Often, asthma episodes occur for the first time after a child has a cold.
“[Colds] are a part of growing up and developing normally, but unfortunately for some children, that can trigger an asthma flare-up.”
How do we treat children with asthma?
The first step is to recognize signs and symptoms and know when to take your child to a doctor, Radhakrishnan said. If your child has wheezing, shortness of breath with colds or with exercise, or exposure to tobacco smoke, pets or pollen, it may be time to make an appointment.
Once a child is diagnosed, health-care providers focus on preventing episodes. A typical prescription involves an inhaled steroid medication, she said.
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If your child has been using asthma medication but continues to have episodes throughout the day, their treatment may need to change, she said.
“In the vast majority of children we have, we have really good treatments for asthma,” Radhakrishnan said. “As long as children are followed regularly by knowledgeable health-care providers and are using treatments as prescribed…. [they] should be able to live a completely full, active, healthy life with no limitations.”
Signs and symptoms of an asthma attack
Typically, if children have been taken to the doctors and a plan has been communicated and implemented, parents will already have instructions on how to use a “reliever” medication. That medication is meant for a flare-up or an attack, said Radhakrishnan.
“But if that medication is not working well, if the child’s symptoms are getting worse … that child needs to be seen in the closest emergency department as soon as possible.”
Children may not always express how severe their asthma symptoms are to their parents, said Susan Balkovec, a respiratory therapist and asthma educator at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
“They can be very stoic and they don’t like to bother their parents,” said Balkovec. “But it’s actually really important that there’s that feedback to the parents when they’re starting not to feel well.”
Lung function decline can happen slowly, and parents may not realize it’s happening in the moment.
What about more severe cases?
About 150,000 to 250,000 Canadians have what Asthma Canada calls “severe asthma.” This is a more severe case of the illness that impacts about one per cent of children diagnosed, Radhakrishnan explained.
“That’s much more difficult to manage,” she said. “But even among those children, in almost all cases, we can achieve very good control such that…. [they] can do everything that they should as a kid.”
Whether your child has severe asthma or mild symptoms, it’s important to create a strict plan of action in conjunction with a health-care provider, said Balkovec.
“[The plan] is something written and personalized so that the patient can have better awareness and self-management,” she said, adding that the plan should be consistently updated and worked on. It should outline what the triggers are, when to use medication, when the child should be taken to the hospital, and how to express that something’s wrong.
“Everybody needs to understand, the caregivers, the children, the parents…. just really understanding what it means to be out of control,” she said. “It’s about early recognition of signs and symptoms.”
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