‘It takes all of us’: At community asthma workshop, doctors say parent efforts are key

As their children colored nearby, parents went table to table, asking doctors and nurses about the different kinds of asthma medication their children are taking and what they could do to prevent the upcoming allergy season from triggering asthmatic reactions.

Families, educators, and health care professionals had come together Tuesday for a community asthma training and safety workshop in a city where a disproportionately high number of children live with the chronic breathing condition. The goal of the training, held at the Chancellor Avenue Annex school auditorium: to help Newark parents learn how better to care for their children with asthma. 

“What we’re doing here today is empowering parents to be advocates,” said Atiya Jaha-Rashidi, a nurse and parent of children with asthma. 

Hosted by the Newark Teachers Association, NJEA PRIDE/FAST, and Beth Israel Children’s Hospital, the event brought together major stakeholders in Newark’s asthma crisis and encouraged collaboration between families, healthcare providers, and schools to ensure thorough asthma care. At the gathering, parents could ask questions of health care professionals and pick up brochures about asthma and its treatments; a free dinner followed. 

One in every four children in Newark has asthma — three times higher than the national average. Locally, children are hospitalized for asthma at 30 times the national rate, studies show. And while asthma-related deaths are rare nationwide, Newark has experienced an average of a death a year among minors from 2010 to 2017, according to the New Jersey Department of Health.

After a Chalkbeat article about childhood asthma, its sometimes-tragic outcomes, and its impact on local schools, Newark Teachers Union vowed to ensure all district school staff receive asthma training. But as of January 31, just 350 of the district’s roughly 6,000 employees had completed the free program, the teachers union said. 

Children across the city regularly miss school because of their asthma, and Superintendent Roger León has named asthma as one of four health issues that impede student achievement. Experts say improving building conditions, staff training, and parental awareness can help curb asthma rates and hospitalizations. 

“Nothing happens without the engagement of parents,” said Khalil Savary, a pediatric pulmonologist at Newark Beth Israel Children’s Hospital of New Jersey. “Parents are key.”

More than 30 medical health professionals came together to give parents resources and information about asthma care. (Devna Bose/Chalkbeat)

Doctors and school nurses at the event said they see patients and students with asthma on a daily basis in Newark, and the severity of the cases is alarming.

“In my years of training in New York City, we did not have nearly as many asthma deaths as we have here,” Savary said. “Your child should not be living with all these symptoms, like coughing all the time, and you’re worried about sending your kid to sleep because you don’t know what’ll happen. Parents live like that daily, and that shouldn’t be.”

Jaha-Rashidi said while her experience with her children’s Newark schools has been positive, that’s due in part to her involvement with their medical treatment and education.

“You need that partnership with the school and [to] give them all the information they need,” she said. “A lot of ownership is on the parent, and the school is also protecting your kids once they have your asthma action plan and medication.”

Datavia Croom, a family advocate at Chancellor Avenue and parent of a child with asthma, said navigating the condition has been a learning process for the family. Many parents “are going by what one doctor says,” so that events like Tuesday’s are important for those who might want a second opinion. She said parents asked good questions at the event, and that they need to keep asking questions. 

Preventing and treating asthma will take doctors, specialists, school nurses, and families all working together,  Savary, the pediatric pulmonologist, said. “It’s hard work, taking care of kids with asthma,” he said. “You have to do a lot, and you have to know a lot, but that’s what we’re here to help with.”