An escape to the cool climate of Arizona's White Mountains seemed like a perfect Fourth-of-July activity. So Lisa Snedeker packed up 3-year-old Brandon and 10-year-old Krystal to join other extended family members for a mini-vacation.
But shortly after arriving, Krystal began coughing. She had struggled with asthma all her life, but this wasn't the time of year she normally had problems. The family had her inhaler with them, but not the breathing machine they used for more serious attacks. Lisa decided they needed to head home.
"I just thought I'd caught a cold," Krystal said. "That always makes my asthma worse."
But after returning home, the coughing and wheezing became worse. The breathing machine treatments didn't seem to be helping. Quickly, the asthma became so severe that Krystal started turning blue, and her mom rushed her to the emergency room at Phoenix Children's Hospital.
About three years earlier, Krystal's asthma had been bad enough to require hospitalization at PCH, and Lisa knew that's where she needed to go.
"I was really scared," said Krystal, as it became almost impossible to breathe. Lisa was scared as well. After emergency intervention, Krystal was admitted to the Pediatric Critical Care Unit, where she lay attached to monitors and breathing devices, every ounce of strength going to the labored struggle of simply breathing.
"The doctor was so nice to Krystal, and to me," said Lisa. "He wasn't someone who just came in to do a job. He really cared." That helped her do what she needed to do. She had to be strong for her daughter, who was, understandably, developing a strong aversion to needles. Krystal required five days in Critical Care and another two days in the General Pediatrics area.
"I was fine until I got her home," Lisa said. "Then reality hit me, and I totally lost it. You just don't realize how quickly your child can be taken away from you."
This horrifying experience was also an eye-opening one, Lisa said. "I always knew her asthma was bad, but, looking back, I realized I ignored many warning signs. It wasn't normal that she needed her inhaler 20 times a day, but it was such a part of her life that I accepted it. I'd just call in for more medication without taking her to the doctor." Krystal's dad, Joseph Huerta, and Lisa both have asthma. The fact that they both have milder symptoms probably contributed to a false sense of comfort with the disease.
Now, with the help of pediatric specialists, they know a better way, and it's a family affair. Krystal's parents, grandparents, and even the aunts and uncles she spends time with, all know what to do if an attack occurs. Krystal takes a preventive medication two times a day, and her breathing is closely monitored with the use of a measuring device called a peak flow, meter so she can take more aggressive treatment at the first sign of trouble.
"Kids are too precious not to pay attention," Lisa said.
Lisa also cares enough to speak out about a tough issue that impacted their care. Because asthma is considered a pre-existing condition, the family has had difficulty getting coverage for Krystal. The family's insurance at the time of her hospitalization had a clause denying care for any asthma-related case.
"I hate to say it, but this had an impact," Lisa said. "We often tried to tough it out when we shouldn't have."
The cost for Krystal's hospital stay was significant, and PCH ended up helping the family cover these expenses. But Lisa doesn't believe this is the best solution. She'd rather be able to find insurance coverage that's affordable for working families who don't qualify for state aid. More important, children with chronic health concerns - the ones most in need of regular care - shouldn't be denied coverage.
Krystal, who is now 12, is just enjoying being a kid. Her greatest passion is gymnastics, which she started at age 3. She practices 12 hours a week and is part of a team that competes every other weekend. She says her asthma doesn't interfere much, because she's learned how to stay on top of it.
"I can tell when I need a treatment," she said.
She also likes hanging out with friends, going to the mall, swimming and bowling. The only lingering after-effect of her hospitalization is one she's not hesitant to share.
"I hate needles," she said.