A single phone call can be a calling to make a connection and build an everlasting bond.
Two years ago, I received such a call from Sarah, a young mother of two children. Her words came slowly, and the tone of her voice lowered. She began to sniffle and started telling me about her daughter.
I realized on the day I received that call from Sarah that there was really a connection between me and her 11-year-old daughter Brennan.
A daughter who was intrigued by the peacock, the national bird of India, which symbolizes immortality, renewal, grace, pride and beauty.
A daughter who was a peacekeeper, a child with aspirations, an inspirer of many young and old, a bridge-builder, and a bright, loving girl.
How did I come to understand Brennan so well?
It was through a common denominator: asthma.
I’m a public health professional, addressing chronic diseases and increasing awareness in the community, and asthma is one of my focus areas.
About 1 in 12 Americans have asthma, and the numbers are increasing every year. Asthma is a serious, sometimes life-threatening chronic disease that causes wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness and coughing.
It can be controlled by avoiding asthma triggers and correctly using prescribed medicines. Triggers can include tobacco smoke, outdoor air pollution, and colds and flu.
Attacks can be sparked by inadequate filtration at home, things like mold growing on shower curtains or tiny dust mites that live in blankets, pillows or children’s stuffed animals.
Doctors and patients can better manage asthma by creating a personal asthma action plan that the patient follows.
That is exactly what Sarah did. On a fall day in 2011, she followed the action plan that was provided to her. She helped Brennan with the inhalers when the child started having difficulty breathing. She also called 911.
As Sarah and I had our own phone conversation that day, little did I know how important it would be for me, how it would change my life for the many years to come.
Sarah began to open up and share the details of a tragedy, one that could have been prevented. A little more information could have prevented a lot of pain, but someone had not connected the dots.
She described how Brennan passed away in her arms on that autumn day. Also, she recalled the last thing Brennan ever said. The dying girl, in a voice strained with fear, had said, “Yes, Mommy.” Her last word was “Mommy.”
Tears started rolling from my eyes. And they kept rolling as Sarah opened up to me in that phone call.
She was angry and sad because she had not been told about how to manage an anaphylactic attack.
Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction that causes breathing problems and loss of consciousness and usually occurs within minutes after contact with an allergen — a substance that causes an allergic reaction. Without speedy treatment, this reaction can cause death.
What was not done over the years on the front end at the provider offices was giving Sarah detailed instructions on how to manage anaphylaxis. This vital information about Epinephrine / EpiPen probably could have saved sweet Brennan’s life.
Grief, anger and a sense of helplessness all filled my head as we talked.
I was able to empathize with her and made an attempt to meet with the family the same week.
Sarah and I have connected since them on a deeper level, and tears roll from our eyes every time we meet. She refers to me as “Brennan’s warrior.” Brennan became my inspiration. She gave me hope and helped me face challenges in turbulent times. I feel her presence next to me, and she has helped with the mission of increasing awareness about prevention and management of asthma triggers.
My first call from Sarah will rank as one of the clearest calls that I have ever received in my life. I heard the love and passionate grief for a lost daughter. But what Sarah felt was not only concern for her own child; she did not want another parent to feel the cutting she felt in her heart each time she thought of her daughter’s smile or laughter.
I have very few personal photos on display in my office. But on my desk, along with my own children’s pictures, I keep a photo of Brennan. Visitors ask me who the little girl is, and I say, “She is my hope.’’ She has given me the drive to increase awareness more vigorously about asthma and to help connect the dots.
We have a long way to go. The stakes for public health professionals are huge. But it takes an entire community — researchers, physicians, public health professionals, parents, home inspectors, schools, community advocates, pharmacists, people in the government and the private sector — to help create the type of care and environment that will help kids like Brennan to live life more fully.
During the days and months since the call, I have been consumed with the mission.
The same call can help you strengthen your purpose.
Fulton County, Georgia’s most populous county, is considered to be an asthma capital of the Southeast.
According to the American Lung Association, an estimated 24,657 children and nearly 55,000 adults suffer from asthma in Fulton County. But though the disease can be effectively managed in a primary care setting, there were 1,052 asthma-related hospitalizations and 7,166 asthma-related emergency room visits in Fulton in 2010.
You can answer Sarah’s call by becoming a change agent and providing a forum for the people that need solutions. Sarah has become the spokeswoman for the local asthma coalition, and Brennan continues to live in all our spirits, instrumental in expanding awareness on the management and prevention of asthma and respiratory illness in the community.
I am glad I took the call that Sarah made and listened to the voice of hope, commitment and aspirations for a better life for us all.
Dr. Nazeera Dawood has a master’s degree in Public Health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a medical degree from Bangalore University in India. Dr. Dawood directs the activities of seven health promotion coalitions formed to address major chronic diseases in Fulton County. Under her leadership, Fulton County chronic disease collaborative partnerships have grown to more than 400 businesses, organizations and individuals.