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Healthy Families
Taking the Asthma tiger by the fiery tail

Thanks to the help of the Taming the Tiger class, Kaden Cox’s life went from “miserable” to playing “soccer, baseball and just about everything without restrictions, says his mother, employee Kristin Cox (in the background).

Cindy Coopersmith listens to the breathing of Ava Stone, daughter of employee Jessica Stone. Diagnosis: good breathing, no asthma.

By Lynn Utzman-Nichols

Taking the Asthma tiger by the fiery tail

The High Park Fire took a heavy toll on everyone in northern Colorado. Impacts were impossible to escape, even if you lived far away from the flames.

Smoke from the fire posed a huge health problem. Clouds of dense, odiferous smoke drifted through communities for three weeks, causing breathing issues for many people and medical problems for people with asthma. ERs at Medical Center of the Rockies and Poudre Valley Hospital  treated numerous asthmatic patients affected by the smoke. Youngsters with asthma were particularly susceptible.

UCHealth in northern Colorado issued written warnings with advice on symptoms and tips for avoiding the smoke. In addition, the organization did short videos that provided information on how the effects of wildfire smoke on a person's health and, for children, healthy tips on dealing with breathing during times of smog- or smoke-filled air. 

Asthma in youth has been in the international spotlight recently as the Olympics get underway in London, which has some of the worst smog in Europe. One of the super athletes, Peter Vanderkaay, is living proof that asthma can be managed. Diagnosed at a young age, the world-class swimmer has control of his asthma. About 16 percent to 20 percent of Olympic athletes in recent Olympiads had asthma, including runner Jackie Joyner-Kersee and five-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Amy Van Dyken.  

As these Olympians demonstrated, asthma can be successfully managed even under such extreme conditions as smog and smoke. Typically, though, asthma begins with simple day-to-day challenges, and that’s where Poudre Valley Hospital’s Taming the Tiger asthma education class comes in.

A tiny tot’s story

By age three, Kaden Cox had been admitted to PVH twice and visited the emergency room several times. His mother, Kristin Cox, a nurse in PVH's oncology unit, says she felt desperate for answers. “He would have a cold in the morning and be in the ER in the afternoon,” she recalls. “He was miserable and I was miserable.”

Even though asthma is usually not diagnosed until a child is older, Kristin asked to see a pediatric asthma specialist. That’s where she learned about the Taming the Tiger class—an opportunity, she says, that changed her life and, most importantly, improved Kaden’s.

Today, Kaden is an active six-year-old who knows a thing or two about managing his own asthma.

“He tells us when he needs his inhaler,” Cox says. “Before, he played soccer and couldn’t hang with the rest of the team. Now he plays soccer, baseball and just about everything without restrictions.”

Tiger tamer

Cindy Coopersmith, a registered respiratory therapist and PVH's certified asthma educator who teaches Taming the Tiger, has asthma and learned to live with it. But she was seriously taken aback when she discovered her daughter has asthma, too.  

“When the doctor used the word asthma to describe my toddler’s wheezing, I cried,” Coopersmith recalls. “Psychologically, I didn’t want to believe it because I had it myself. I knew how hard it can be.”

Coopersmith’s Taming the Tiger class has made it easier for hundreds of other families. The tiger, of course, is asthma -- it’s traumatic and has life-altering dangers. The class was launched in 2001 thanks to a grant from the PVH Foundation.

The class is taught in two three-hour sessions designed for anyone with asthma, regardless of age. Young children attend the first class with parents, while parents go to the second class alone. The class offers useful tips and tools that help families maintain daily control over symptoms.

For the $10 class fee, participants receive a comprehensive educational program about asthma. They get a textbook about asthma and a peak flow meter, a hand-held device that monitors a person’s ability to exhale. The peak flow meter can determine the extent of asthmatic problems.

“The class is unique in northern Colorado,” Coopersmith says. “We even get people attending from Denver, Sterling, Rifle and Cheyenne.”

She reports this with delight because it’s a measurement of the excellent reputation of the class. Another measurement is a personal anecdote: Coopersmith recently did a victory dance around her office -- a celebration to recognize that she had just served her 200th asthma patient and family.

Coopersmith surveys class graduates at six months and one year to learn about their quality of life since the class. She says outcomes “are fantastic.” In 2011, all participants had stayed out of the ER and the hospital during the first year after attending her class.

“For a fee of $10, it sure saved us a lot of money,” says Cox, who happily exclaims that Kaden hasn’t been in the hospital for breathing problems since the class and only has had to use medication once rather than regularly, as before. 

“Even though I’m a nurse, I learned so much about managing asthma,” she says. “Cindy is incredible. Her spark and enthusiasm about asthma education are so encouraging.”

Symptoms and diagnosis in children

Classic symptoms include coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, an increased respiratory rate, and the appearance that the child is tugging to breathe—a pulling in at the ribs with each breath.

Doctors typically don’t diagnose asthma unless they hear wheezing on three different occasions. “When you go to your doctor to explore asthma symptoms, be a good reporter,” Coopersmith advises. “Tell the doctor your child’s history. Mention all instances of breathing problems that you remember over the child’s lifetime.”

A diagnosis of asthma in a child can make a parent feel stunned, Coopersmith says. “You might panic and think, ‘Oh my gosh, my child can’t breathe!’ Managing asthma can be a challenge, but if you embrace it and learn as much as you can about controlling it, you’ll be okay.”

Coopersmith knows firsthand how hard it can be for families of a child with asthma. “Parents,” she says, “will get to a place where managing their child’s asthma becomes second nature. My message to parents of newly diagnosed kids is that you will have times when life feels easy again. And when your child’s condition shifts, you’ll take a deep breath and follow the asthma action plan that you’ve developed with your health-team members.”

Lynn Utzman-Nichols is a freelance writer in Fort Collins. For more information about Taming the Tiger, contact Cindy Coopersmith by phone (495-8153) or email (

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