What It’s Like to Have Asthma: A Layman’s Experiment


Being a dad and husband in my late 40s, my walks on the wild side are mostly behind me, like overgrown trails. Let’s face it: It’s hard to flirt with danger and live a zestful, adventurous life when you’re parked in the pickup line at your children’s grade school. So I like to live vicariously through other people. What is it like to dive with great white sharks? I don’t have the means to do that, so I watch Shark Week. Is being a tall man different than being of below average height? I go to the playground and berate toddlers. Novel experiences like that can really enliven an otherwise drab afternoon.

This morning I wondered what it would be like to have asthma. When I see characters on TV and in movies puff their inhalers, it always makes me ponder that affliction. The sensation of running out of air is a horrible feeling, and the moments when that occurs to me is while swimming underwater and all I do to stop the feeling is surface and breathe. It’s not that easy for an asthmatic to get relief – there’s no surface to reach and no limitless expanse of air just a stroke away.

I read somewhere that breathing through a straw for 45 seconds is a good way for people without asthma to see what it’s like to have an asthma attack. So after dropping off the kids this morning, I went to the corner deli, got a bagel and coffee, grabbed a straw, and sat down at a small table to have breakfast and conduct my asthma experiment.

I pulled the straw from its paper casing, set the timer on my smart phone to 45 seconds, and started breathing through the straw. I felt a little self-conscious because the deli was busy. I was wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt and I think some people assumed I was doing some kind of airborne drug, but I stayed the course and breathed through the straw for the whole 45 seconds.

Halfway through, I did start to feel light-headed since my brain was getting the bare minimum of oxygen. It was so little breath to work with and it was only 45 seconds. It would be horrible to experience this for every waking moment. I sat there with the straw in my mouth and shook my head at the thought.

A young woman at the table next to mine said, “Excuse me, is that a straw?”

I looked over and, through the straw, said, “Um, yeah?”

“Do you know that single-use plastic straws kill 10,000 sea turtles and 5,000 orphans a year?” She asked, slapping the straw from my mouth.

“I, uh…” I said, trying to pick up my straw on the floor and my breakfast at the same time. My timer clock was still going off and it’s a happy Calypso ringtone that fit neither the moment nor the deli. I backed away from the table with my stuff and shuffled towards the door. I told the young woman, “I’ll reuse it. I promise.”

In the parking lot, a policeman was beside my car, writing up a ticket. Apparently, I had parked in a handicapped parking space. I walked up to the officer with my breakfast and straw and told him that I did not realize it was a handicapped parking space. He handed me a ticket and the fine was $250 for illegal parking. Man, it is not fun to have asthma.