Kate Zuidersma sits in a tree and smiles.
Kate Zuidersma suffers from asthma, but she doesn’t let it keep her down. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

On a recent sunny weekday, Kate Zuidersma took turns playing with her sisters on a well-worn merry-go-round at a Traverse City playground.

She pushed. She rode. She smiled.

It hasn’t always been such a happy ride for 6-year-old Kate. She’s been on her share of medical merry-go-rounds.

At 3 months of age, the Traverse City resident suffered respiratory distress and had to be hospitalized.

“From that point on she was sick all the time,” said Kate’s mom, Deirdre Zuidersma. “It was usually respiratory stuff.”

For the next couple of years, little Kate continued to suffer bouts of breathing difficulty hospitalizations.

By age 4, she was referred to Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, where specialists diagnosed her with severe persistent asthma. Kate is far from alone. Asthma is near the top of the list of reasons children younger than 15 are admitted to the hospital, coming in at No. 3.

It is the most common chronic illness in childhood today, according to John Schuen, MD, division chief of pediatric pulmonary/sleep medicine with Spectrum Health Medical Group.

Asthma causes spasm of the airways. Our airways have little muscles in them that constrict and make the caliber of the airway smaller.

“It’s like breathing through a straw,” Dr. Schuen said. “It also causes inflammation, which is just a fancy term for swelling and irritation. These two things can really wreak havoc in the lives of our children.”

These symptoms keep kids up at night coughing, which can result in a poor night’s sleep. Asthma can also stop children from playing sports to their full potential.

Asthma-related trips to the emergency room or hospital significantly disrupt the lives of the entire family.

Besides asthma, Kate comes from a family with auto-immune disorder history, according to Dierdre, who also suffers from asthma.

“It came back that she’s a carrier for the cystic fibrosis gene,” Dierdre said. “We did further genetic testing and got involved with infectious disease because of recurring sinus infections.”

Further tests indicated Kate also lacks enough necessary protein in her immune system, which makes her more susceptible to sinus and respiratory infections.

Because of this, and the chances of her other two children, Adeline, 8, and Natalie, 5, passing something along to Kate, Dierdre keeps her children home when diseases are making the rounds at school.

“This past winter was the healthiest winter we’ve had with her,” Dierdre said. “Pertussis was running rampant through her elementary school—there were 22 cases. We were proactive and pulled our kids out for a couple of weeks.”

Dierdre praised her daughter’s medical team at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

“Everyone has been phenomenal to work with,” she said. “They helped us get a care plan in place so we can still live here and have a quality life without being weighed down by all the illnesses she has to live with.”

As Dierdre spoke, Grand Traverse Bay glistened behind her.

She said she’s thrilled that within a year, Spectrum Health could have a pulmonology clinic in place in her hometown.

“For us that’s huge,” Dierdre said. “Right now we have monthly or bi-monthly trips down to Grand Rapids to see the specialists. We’re thrilled with her lungs. Even when she got really sick last time, her lungs sounded fantastic. I feel like we’ve really gotten a handle on her asthma.”

Kate Zuidersma poses for a photo with her family.
Deirdre Zuidersma, top left, talks about the challenges of having a child with asthma, and how the entire family seeks to stay as healthy as possible so Kate, bottom left, doesn’t fall ill. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Inhalers are in place at school, the family van, mom’s purse and at home—just in case.

“She never complains, even with everything that’s going on,” Dierdre said. “Everyone that meets her is smitten with her. Her energy for life is contagious and she’s passionate about everything she does.”

Dr. Schuen said asthma is not a sentence to eternal sickness.

“Children and their families can take charge of their asthma instead of asthma interfering with their life,” Dr. Schuen said. “That is the goal in our pediatric pulmonary and sleep medicine office and our team truly enjoys helping our kids control their asthma and allow a child to be a child.“

There are many different asthma triggers.

Dr. Schuen said illness is a common denominator for kids younger than 5, but in older kids triggers may include allergies, changes in weather, exercise, obstructive sleep apnea, gastroesophageal reflux or even strong emotions.

When to call the doctor

If you notice that your child has a cough or wheeze that lingers for an extended period of time, it’s probably time to talk to the doctor.

“Everybody can cough during a common cold,” Dr. Schuen said, “but if the cough or wheezing lingers on for more than 10 days and becomes a recurrent theme in that child’s life, then that’s something that you should bring to the attention of your primary care physician.”

Dr. Schuen noted that the first step parents should take when they think their children may suffer from asthma is to work with a primary care physician to make the diagnosis. Parents and their children can talk with their doctor about the child’s symptoms and work to get a sense of asthma episodes and issues during the past year or two.

“Try to identify those trends,” he said.

Then it’s a matter of teasing apart what the triggers are, so the child can avoid them if possible. Sometimes it involves allergy testing. In addition to controlling the environment, medication may also be prescribed.

The good news is that for the vast majority of kids with asthma, it can be well controlled—sometimes so well that flare-ups are rare. With proper patient education, on-hand medications, and keen observation, families today can learn to control nearly every asthma flare-up by initiating treatment early, which will reduce ER visits and possibly eliminate hospital admissions.

Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital is honored to be named as one of U.S. News & World Report’s 2015–16 Best Children’s Hospitals for a fourth consecutive year. We were recognized in three specialties: cancer, nephrology and pulmonology.

To learn more, watch a video of Dr. Schuen discussing asthma in children.