Freshmen students began to move into the dorms in early August for the 2021 school year. At this point, the Dixie Fire had been burning for a month. The air quality in Reno was considered unhealthy for sensitive groups. When school resumed on Monday, Aug. 23, the air quality was well into the hazardous category.
I never expected that I would have to take steroids during my first week of college.
I have had asthma my whole life. There would be times when I had to miss school due to my asthma. I never wanted to miss school. After I returned, I would fall behind in class and struggle for the next few weeks trying to catch up.
Growing up in California, I’ve had to deal with fires. I had to have a suitcase full of medical equipment in the event I needed it. I grew out of needing this equipment, but still had asthma.
To be proactive for this school year, I bought an air purifier for my room. After having it on nonstop for two days, I was still struggling to breathe. The common area in my dorm room was hazy. Thankfully, I had a family member send me another air purifier as a gift, as I can’t just spend money whenever I want. I work a part-time job on minimum wage, the majority of which goes towards my tuition loans. My inhalers are each over $100, even with insurance, and at the rate I’m using them, I will need replacements every two months.
On the first day of school, I had to use my highest-intensity inhaler. I have three inhalers, each increasing in intensity compared to the previous. I only use the highest-intensity inhaler for emergencies. I ended up needing to use that inhaler three times on the first day of school.
Even at night I struggled to breathe. My air purifier was on and I had used my inhaler, but I still couldn’t breathe. I woke up to ash on my pillows. My throat was sore and scratchy from inhaling smoke and coughing all night. It was only the second day of school, and I was going to have to miss it.
When my asthma becomes too much to handle with just the inhalers, I have to take steroids. I rarely have to take steroids. I only really used them when I was younger and less responsible with my health. The steroid works to weaken my immune system, which reduces inflammation and swelling of my lungs. I am a high-risk individual when it comes to COVID-19 with my asthma, but with the steroid weakening my immune system, I was even more at risk.
Some of the side effects I experience while using the steroid are fatigue, headaches, and head fogginess. I am unable to participate in classes with these side effects. Thankfully, my professors were understanding of the situation, but that didn’t mean that I was okay with missing school.
While professors do go through their syllabi during the first week of school, they also establish connections with students. I pride myself on being a good student. By missing the first week of school, I could come across as a student who doesn’t care about their education. But if I went to class and was unable to pay attention, I would come across as a student who doesn’t care about their education.
On the third day of classes, the university sent out an email to all of its students. The email contained a list of people who were at high risk due to the fires, as well as recommendations to reduce smoke exposure. These recommendations included staying indoors and creating a clean air room. Nowhere in the email did it say what to do regarding attending school if you were a high-risk student.
I had two choices: either miss school and try to stay healthy, or go to class but risk having asthma attacks, which could lead to going to a hospital. Not all of my professors offered Zoom classes.
While my professors were okay with me missing class, I was already falling behind. My anxiety was rising and I was on the verge of a panic attack.
In order for the steroid to be effective, I need to take it every day for a week. In other words, in order to remain healthy, I would need to miss the second week of school as well. I stopped taking steroids. I had no choice. If I missed school, I would fall behind in classes. My mental health would drop, to the point where I would stop going to class altogether. It has happened in the past before, so it’s not like I’m just speculating. Even though I wouldn’t be going to class, I would still have to pay for tuition.
I had to risk getting sicker and possibly having to go to the hospital. And, if I got COVID-19 due to my weakened immune system, dying.
I used some of my emergency funds to buy N95 masks. They are a lot better at filtering the smoke out, but I still inhale some smoke. I already requested a refill on my inhalers, which has my asthma doctor worried about me. While the air quality got better, it’s getting worse as you read this. I have to hope that it doesn’t get to the severity it was before. If it does get that bad, I will have to hope that I don’t get to the point where I need to go to the hospital, as I can’t afford it.
I shouldn’t feel like education and finances are more important than my health, yet here I am, risking my health every day.
Carrisa Shelton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.