As a kid, Mary Jo Fernandez, 39, frequently battled bouts of bronchitis and colds. “I went to doctor’s office a lot.” But the cause of her chronic symptoms were the result of the undiagnosed and uncontrolled asthma that nearly sidelined the former tennis pro and Olympic gold-medalist. “I was very sick as a kid and teen and had bronchitis 5 or 6 times a year,” she explains. “I always had trouble catching my breath and even though I took a lot of antibiotics the bronchitis and coughs never went away.” All that time spent sick or in the doctor’s office threatened her ability to commit to the intense training regimen needed to become a champion.
“My health was definitely compromising my performance on the court,” she says.
After graduating high school she started playing tennis full time but says she couldn’t keep up. “Even though I was young, I was always tired and winded.”
About two years into training full-time, Mary Jo’s coach told her parents it wasn’t normal for someone her age to be as sick or tired as Mary Jo, then 20, was.
Here’s how Mary Jo triumphed over her asthma, and what she’s doing to make sure her son’s asthma remain under control.
When were you diagnosed?
My tennis coach recognized that something was wrong and he urged my parents to take me to the Mayo Clinic. I had a series of tests and that’s when I was diagnosed. Looking back there were so many signs that I had asthma, but we didn’t know anything about the disease so we didn’t know to investigate that as a possibility.
What went through your mind when you received your diagnosis?
I was glad to know what was causing the fatigue, wheezing and coughing. But my parents and I were shocked and scared because we thought that meant I wouldn’t be able to play tennis anymore.
How were you able to get your asthma under control?
By following my maintenance plan and taking the medication as prescribed by my doctor. Not only did that get my asthma under control, it quickly changed my mind. The diagnosis really turned out to be a blessing in disguise because managing my asthma gave me back my life. I started to train 4 to 5 hours a day and then went to the gym.
It seems like all that training paid off for you.
It did! All that training paid off. I was very fortunate and went on to achieve Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) singles and doubles titles, Olympic gold medals in doubles in 1992 and 1996, and an Olympic bronze in women’s singles in 1992. I was also the youngest player to win a U.S. Open match in 1985.
When you became a mom, did you worry your kids might develop asthma?
I admit, I did. It definitely crossed my mind so I kept a close eye on Isabella, 8, and Nicholas, 6 1/2 looking for symptoms of asthma. I know how difficult it is to live with the tight feeling in your chest, persistent cough, wheezing and feeling that you can’t catch your breath. So when Nicholas started coughing through the night, and his frequent colds lingered, we went to the pediatrician and I asked for him to be tested for asthma. I wanted to act sooner rather than later to prevent damage to his lungs.
What was your rection to Nicholas’ symptoms?
He started coughing through the night about two years ago. That’s when I also noticed his frequent colds lingered a bit too long so I took immediate action. We went to the pediatrician and I asked for him to be tested for asthma. I wanted to act sooner rather than later to prevent damage to his lungs.
After performing breathing tests similar to the ones I had years earlier, the doctor confirmed my suspicion. When he told me Nicholas had asthma, I was relieved that we caught it early but also felt sad because I had hoped that my children wouldn’t develop asthma. That was disappointing.
How do you help your son manage his asthma?
I know firsthand how beneficial managing triggers can be for people with asthma and in addition to following the treatment plan outline by his doctor, I’ve found a few steps have helped reduce Nicholas’ attacks and help keep him healthy. They are:
Reduce exposure to environmental triggers. We keep a limited number of stuffed animals on his bed or in his bedroom because they breed dust mites. I washing the sheets once a week in hot water to kill off dust mite eggs and have an allergen-blocking mattress cover and hypoallergenic pillows to further reduce dust mites in the bedroom.
Knock out dust. I’m always vacuuming! Routine vacuuming reduces dust and dust mites around our home as well as in the bedroom.
- Be proactive. Despite his young age, Nicholas is starting to share responsibility for his health because asthma is something he’ll have for the rest of his life. My husnband and I consistently discuss his triggers and the tools available to manage his symptoms. He knows when an attack is coming and now he doesn’t get scared. He’ll tell me “Mommy, I need my medicine”.
- Listen to the doctor. We stick to recommended check-ups and the treatment plan outlined by our doctor. That is vital to controlling asthma.
Have these things helped his asthma?
They rrealy have. He’s neevr required hospitalization or missed a lot of school due to his asthma. And unlike her little brother, Isabella has never exhibited symptoms of asthma. However, because his asthma is also exercise-induced, I delayed immersing Nicholas in sports until the doctors had control over his condition. Now he plays tennis and swims, there’s no stopping him.
What made you join the Everyone Breath campaign?
I wanted to educate fellow parents on the benefits of managing asthma so I temaed up with the educational campaign for parents of children with asthma, www.EveryoneBreathe.com. The more you know, the more power you have to get control over yours or your child’s asthma.