The Struggle to Breathe

Air Pollution and Asthma

Click play above to listen to Randy’s story.

Randy’s Written Story

By Seth Jovaag

About a decade ago, Randy Radtke got out of bed one night and found that he couldn’t breathe. He didn’t know it at the time, but in his mid-50s, he was experiencing his first full-on asthma attack.

“It feels like creeping strangulation,” explained Radtke, who lives in Lake Mills. “You can feel it in your throat, you can suddenly feel it in your sinuses, you just can't seemingly get a breath.

“I didn’t really have a diagnosis until that one morning when I got out of bed and I just couldn’t breathe at all and was suddenly up against the wall gasping.”

According to the CDC, 24 million people in the United States have asthma. About sixty percent of them end up limiting their physical activity or missing school or work.

“I stupidly didn't think you could get asthma as an adult,” Radtke said. “When my family practitioner said, ‘It’s asthma,’ I said, ‘Wait a second, isn't that a kids’ situation?’ He said no, there's a growing prevalence of people who have asthma as adults.”

Now in his 60s, Radtke has worked as a teacher, a newspaper editor, a state representative, and, most recently, as a lobbyist for the American Lung Association. Given that line of work, it’s not surprising that he has some theories about where his asthma may have originated.

Growing up in Watertown, Radtke and other kids in his neighborhood often ran behind “foggers” that sprayed chemicals like DDT to keep mosquito populations in check.

“It wasn't uncommon to be behind the fogger and to have 20 or 30 kids from the neighborhood pretending to swim or run through it,” Radtke said. “My theory is that having inhaled that repeatedly as a child eventually had an impact on my lungs. Whether that theory has any basis in scientific evidence, who knows.

Theories aside, Radtke now has a firm grasp on what exacerbates his asthma. Three major “triggers” are wood-burning stoves, diesel fumes and smokehouses. He tries to avoid all three. If he’s walking his dog on a cold day, he’ll avoid walking past a neighbor with a wood-burning stove, for example. As gas stations, he’ll steer clear of diesel trucks and check the flags to make sure he parks upwind of the fumes.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s impacted my life greatly, but what it does is that it changes the way you think about what you can and cannot do and it changes the patterns of where you're going to go,” he said.

Thanks to his inhaler, Radtke says asthma isn’t so scary anymore.

“What are you going to do? You just live with it, you roll with it, and you just try to work through it,” he says.

But he also admits that his wife of 48 years is a little less blasé about it all.

“She'd like me to be even more careful than I already am. She was in the bedroom the morning it happened. (She) was like, ‘No, you're calling your family practitioner, you’re going to get to Watertown, we're going to find out what this is.’ It was (scary), not only for myself but for her as well.”


Image by Seth Jovaag