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Asthma Lady helps kids breathe easier
'Asthma Lady' educates kids about leading cause of school absences

Kay Stiffler talks to children about what asthma is and how it affects those who have it.
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Date published: 3/26/2006

Earlier this month, a group of about 40 third-graders coughed, wheezed and sputtered through coffee stirrers in the gymnasium of Grafton Village Elementary School.

"When somebody is having an asthma attack, they're breathing through airways the size of that little straw or smaller," explained Kay Stiffler, a respiratory therapist at Mary Washington Hospital.

Stiffler, nicknamed "The Asthma Lady," has visited 39 local schools in the past five years. Her asthma classes have educated students from kindergarten through high school.

About 20 million Americans suffer from asthma and 5,000 die from it each year, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. The disease is the leading cause of school absences, which is one of the main reasons Stiffler thinks it is so important to inform children about it.

The visits are part of Stiffler's job, and Mary Washington Hospital does not charge the schools for the service. Stiffler sends letters out to the public and private schools in Fredericksburg and the counties of Stafford, Spotsylvania, King George, Caroline and Westmoreland at the beginning of each school year, and visits the ones that get back to her.

Stiffler began her half-hour presentation at Grafton Village by naming some famous people who have asthma, such as Jerome Bettis, Apollo Ohno and Coolio. She explained that although those people have asthma, they have not let it stop them from leading active lives.

"So, do you think you should ever come into PE class and say, 'I can't run because I have asthma?'" she asked the students.

The third-graders answered with a resounding chorus of "no."

Stiffler initially became interested in respiratory therapy because it has affected her personally.

"Everybody in my family has asthma. I have asthma," she said. "It's so misdiagnosed and misunderstood."

The third-graders watched a movie called "Wheeze World," a spinoff of "Wayne's World." Zeke and Reggie, the "Wheeze World" version of Wayne and Garth, discussed inflammation, which is the condition asthmatics deal with daily, and bronchospasm, which causes attacks of wheezing and coughing.

The students are generally very interested in learning what they can do to help their siblings and friends who have asthma, according to Stiffler.

"They're going: 'I never knew that's how my brother felt. Maybe I can help him,'" she said.

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