Gerri rivers might not be studying to be a doctor if it wasn’t for asthma. Her interest in medicine was sparked during her childhood in Ohio, when allergies to milk, peanuts, pollens and animals took her in and out of doctors’ offices. So opting for a career in health care, first as a blood technician, didn’t surprise her friends and family. Says Gerri, “I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was a very little girl.”
But an asthma attack at age 27—her first—may have given her the final push. “My chest felt tight, I was wheezing and coughing,” Gerri says. “I felt like I was suffocating.” The cause? A previously unknown sensitivity to the latex in a stethoscope she’d used at work the day before.
Gerri, now 41, since discovered that severe allergies such as latex sensitivity can trigger asthma attacks, often with dangerous consequences. The 1997 event was a wake-up call: “I thought, ‘Here I am, a health worker, and no one had ever told me about latex allergy.’”
Gerri responded by becoming a certified asthma educator, attending health conferences in New Mexico, where she now lives, and speaking out about how people could protect themselves. In 2005, she co-founded Asthma Allies, a non-profit organization dedicated to asthma education and outreach. Twice a month she drives with other healthcare professionals to rural areas, providing care and education to those with asthma. For two years, she’s run a camp for children, Camp Cough No Mas (mas means “more,” in Spanish), and she’s just begun a program training asthma educators.
Gerri has lots of incentive. Her two teenage children have allergies and one has asthma, and the incidence of asthma is growing in both children and adults. Plus, as Gerri’s asthma heightened her sensitivity to other allergens, her life became a struggle in avoidance. She threw up when she ate bananas, got sick from tar smell and she had three anaphylactic reactions, which can be fatal, to balloons. “For five years, I couldn’t even go in a grocery store because of the balloons and smells of cleaning products,” she says.
Since then, because of her vigilance, her asthma has quieted, and Gerri says the condition has enlarged—not narrowed—her life. She’s taking premed classes at the University of New Mexico, the first step toward becoming an ER doctor with a specialty in asthma. Says Gerri: “It has been so empowering, so wonderful and so humbling to help other people go from feeling smothered to discovering they can play a sport or run around in a field. No one
has to say, ‘I can’t do this,’ because of asthma.”