While medicine can control asthma, people who have it can end up in the emergency room, but there’s an alternative treatment that help people with debilitating asthma.
About 26 million Americans have asthma, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. In D.C., one in 10 people has it.
Janet Slocum, 70, was 23 years old when she was diagnosed. At one point, her asthma attacks were so frequent and severe that she was having trouble living a normal life.
“I don't think there was a month in the calendar that I had not been hospitalized at some point,” she said.
But a couple of years ago, she had a procedure for patients with debilitating asthma called bronchial thermoplasty. She hasn’t had a severe attack since.
“Patients with severe asthma have a difficulty with thickening of the smooth muscles around the airways, and during an asthma attack, these muscles constrict and make it hard for people to breathe,” explained Dr. Eric D. Anderson, the director of interventional pulmonology at Medstar Georgetown University Hospital.
Bronchial thermoplasty is a series of three procedures that heats the airways to destroy or weaken the smooth muscles that surround the airways. The three bronchoscopies are done three weeks apart and under anaesthesia
“A small tube is placed at the back of their throat into their airway, and our scope is placed in between the tube into the airway,” Anderson said. “And in bronchial thermoplasty we can put a small probe down inside the airways. This probe can send a radio current of heat that heats the airways in different spots and those heated airways then weaken the smooth muscle that’s around the areas.”
Anderson said that although it's not a cure, bronchial thermoplasty is effective, drastically reducing symptoms. Patients who’ve had it report fewer emergency room visits and hospitalizations.
MedStar Georgetown University Hospital is the only hospital in the area which offers the procedure. Anderson has only performed it a handful of times, which he hopes will change in the future.
The severity of Slocum's asthma made her an ideal candidate. She had her first treatment in January 2016, then her second.
She delayed the third to take a trip to Australia.
“I was around animals — kangaroos and koala bears and just everything — and I had no problem,” she said.
Two years after the first procedure Slocum had not taken any medicine and had not had a severe attack.
She’s planning a trip to China and still hasn’t had the third treatment. She and the doctor decided to wait and see.
Bronchial thermoplasty is not for children, whose lungs are still developing. You have to be 18 years old.
It's an outpatient procedure, with anaesthesia, that only takes about half an hour, and it's usually covered by health insurance.