By Katie Scarvey
Local baseball fans have read a lot about Micah Jarrett over the past few years. A high school and American Legion baseball standout, he got a scholarship to play baseball at Wake Forest University last year, and his picture has been in the Post plenty of times.
But what most people probably don’t know about Micah is that he has asthma ó and that if he doesn’t take care of it, it could be life-threatening.
Rising track star Andrew Burgess, 9, also has asthma.
Micah and Andrew are in good company. Baseball player Catfish Hunter, hoops star Dennis Rodman, Steeler football player Jerome Bettis and track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee all have asthma.
Dr. Christopher Magryta, a pediatrician at Salisbury Pediatric Associates, wants his young patients with asthma to know that the condition does not have to limit their activity ó that they can not only be active in sports but excel at them ó if they do what they need to do.
That means eating well, avoiding environmental pollutants and taking their medication in a timely fashion, he says.
Micah would agree with that.
Transferring to Pitt Community College this fall, Micah is currently recovering from an injury and will be red-shirted this year.
Although his family knew Micah had severe allergies as a child, they did not learn that he had asthma until he was 14, his freshman year at Salisbury High School.
He remembers going to see Dr. Magryta for a regular physical exam before baseball started. Micah described getting short of breath if he was playing or practicing hard ó which prompted Magryta to run some tests that determined he did suffer from asthma.
Micah learned that his asthma is both allergy-induced and exercise-induced.
He figures he’s had it for years.
“Anytime I got short of breath, that could have been an asthma attack and I just didn’t know it,” he says.
Micah began learning how to control his asthma, although there were a few blips along the way.
He remembers once near the end of a football game his sophomore year at Salisbury High School when he was so worn down and tired that he started having an attack.
His trainer, who carried an inhaler for Micah, gave it to him, but it didn’t work as it usually did. (Inhalers deliver bronchodilators that relax muscles in the airway and increase air flow to the lungs.)
Looking back, he realizes that he didn’t use his inhaler early enough, when he felt symptoms coming on.
“It was a terrible experience,” he says.
His body felt numb, his lips were tingling, and he felt dizzy, he says.
“It was the worst feeling, not being able to breathe and not having it under control,” he says.
After that experience, his parents bought a portable nebulizer, which is a machine that turns liquid medication into a mist so that it can be breathed directly into the lungs through a face mask or mouthpiece. It gave them some peace of mind to know that they had a back-up treatment if the inhaler didn’t work.
Now, ready to start his second year of college, Micah is quite comfortable handling his condition. He’s learned two important things, he says.
“Asthma is serious, and you’ve got to take it seriously,” he says.
But if you manage it properly and do what is necessary to keep it under control, “it’s not that big of a deal,” he adds.
“It won’t limit you from doing the things you want to do. I’m still able to go out and have fun and play baseball, but I have to be a little bit smarter about it.”
Once you have asthma, he says, you have to ask yourself, “‘Am I just tired right now, or do I need to use my inhaler because this is the start of an asthma attack?'”
These days, he doesn’t take any chances.
He’ll use his inhaler after strenuous activity on the field, like running the bases, just as a precautionary measure.
Micah says he used to be more self-conscious about using an inhaler than he is now.
In high school, he says, “I would go behind the dugout where someone wouldn’t see me,” he says. “Or my mom would meet me by my dugout and bring my inhaler. No one knew what I was doing.
“The older I got (the more I realized) that it wasn’t that big of a deal,” he says.
He was reminded of the importance of the inhaler last fall at Wake Forest.
Vying for a starting position in the spring, Micah was working hard at the very first team practice of the year.
About halfway though the workout, he realized he had to stop ó he knew he was entering the danger zone and didn’t have his inhaler with him . That was unusual; he just happened to be transitioning from one kind of inhaler to another, and has mom hadn’t delivered his new one yet.
He believes his coach assumed that he was simply being lazy and wasn’t yet aware that, missing his usual inhaler, Micah was simply trying to prevent a dangerous asthma attack.
“I think he figured it out later on in the season when we would be in the middle of working out, and I’d do a couple puffs of inhaler and get right back out there.
“It’s important to always have an inhaler with you,” he says.
It’s just part of suiting up for a game, he says: “Hat, gloves, shoes … inhaler.”
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Andrew Burgess, 9, was diagnosed at a much younger age than Micah.
Andrew was being treated for asthma when he was a toddler. The first clue was that he coughed a lot at night, his mother, Ester Marsh, remembers.
When he was six, testing revealed that his oxygen levels were not what they should be, Marsh says. He began taking a daily asthma medication, plus an Albuterol inhaler as needed, which has done a good job of controlling his condition, she says.
Andrew runs with the Salisbury Speedsters, a local track club, and his asthma has not held him back.
He recently competed in Knoxville, Tenn. in the Regional AAU Championships in the 800 meters, which qualified him for the national AAU competition. Although he couldn’t make that meet, his best 800-meter time ó two minutes 35 seconds ó would have earned him a spot near the top.
In his age group, then, Andrew is among the very fastest runners in the country.
When he began training, he had to use his inhaler almost every practice ó three or four times a week, Marsh says. But as the season wore on and his cardiovascular fitness improved, he used it less and less.
Eventually, he stopped needing to use it in practice, although he continues to take his daily asthma medication.
Marsh trusts her son to realize when he needs to use his inhaler.
Although Marsh herself was never diagnosed with asthma, she believes that she had the same condition as a child.
“I had the same symptoms as Andrew, like the night coughing,” she says. In college, she took a VO2 Max test, which measures the maximum capacity of an individual’s body to transport and utilize oxygen during exercise. Her result was not nearly as good as expected, considering her high fitness level. She now believes that untreated asthma caused those results.
“In this day and age, medicines are good enough that all kids should be able to be active with asthma,” Magryta says, adding that all types of asthma are treatable.
Just how active depends, on their compliance with therapy, eating a healthy diet and avoiding environmental pollutants, he says.
Problems only arise when young athletes don’t take their asthma seriously, he adds. If they don’t pay attention to the warning signs, attacks can be life-threatening.
The incidence of asthma, Magryta says, is going up every year. He believes it’s a combination of environmental pressures, poor nutrition, and “the hygiene hypothesis” which posits that a lack of early childhood exposure to infectious agents increases susceptibility to allergic diseases by putting a damper on immune system development. There is often a genetic component as well.
Whatever the cause, the good news for Jarrett and Burgess and other young people with asthma is the severity of the condition tends to ease with age.