A Parent’s Perspective on Asthma: Talking with Michelle Obama

January 20, 2009

By Rochelle Davis, Founding Executive Director

As I watched the Presidential inauguration this morning, I remembered the strong support that Barack and Michelle Obama have expressed over the years for healthy school environments. Their daughter Malia is one of millions of American children who suffer from asthma that can be triggered by dust, mold, harsh cleaning products or other chemicals at school.

Michelle Obama took time to speak with Healthy Schools Campaign in the summer of 2005 about the challenges of managing a child's asthma, particularly at school. In a piece we published in Healthy Schools magazine [pdf] in Sept. 2005, Michelle shared her thoughts on how schools and families can work together to help manage asthma in children:

“Luckily for us, the school has been very helpful in monitoring Malia and noting when there seemed to be something that triggered her asthma and allergies. The teachers know her well and quickly see when there is a change in her personality. While asthma has not prevented her from leading a full life at school, the school building is old, and like many old buildings has mold and dust, which can trigger her asthma. The teachers have been compassionate and understanding, as well as communicative, when they see a change in her condition.

“We've seen examples where the school has really worked hard to help children with conditions like my daughter's. When she was in nursery school, there was a child in her group who had very severe allergies. Together, the school, parents and teachers worked to improve conditions — for instance, adding a humidifier to the room.

“Our school overall has been very helpful. They remember that parents of a child with asthma or allergies are people too, and that they often need information and help. Parents really need to be educated about asthma: what it is, what the symptoms are, how to recognize signs of an attack, and what the possible triggers are. I believe that schools in general could take a few steps further to educate parents about what is going on. Parents need to know the facts: Asthma is a manageable condition, and schools can help bridge the gap so that families become better informed and more aware.

“What kind of advice would I give to parents of an asthmatic child? First of all, don’t be afraid of medications. Get informed about them, as there is a lot of misinformation that parents may hear and that makes them hesitant to have the child medicated. Asthma medications have evolved and many have no noticeable side effects. Secondly, do what it takes to help make your child more comfortable. Perhaps that means removing carpeting in the house, making sure there is no dust, or not having a pet. We did these things and it made a big difference in how our daughter feels. It might mean urging the school to make changes in the products they use to clean or updating the heating or cooling system to improve indoor air quality and other conditions. It’s worthwhile to take these simple steps in order to help Malia grow and be happy. That's really the bottom line.”

I hope that this personal experience with managing childhood asthma at school will help President Obama shape national policies that support healthy school environments for all children.