Sondra Turner didn't know anything about asthma when she became a foster mother six years ago to then 2-year-old Alexis. "She came with her machine and all her meds," Turner says. Between doctor visits, her own research and classes offered by her day care center, Turner gradually learned to handle her daughter's condition. What she didn't learn, however, was how to identify and eliminate asthma triggers in her home.
Turner lives on the west side of Chicago in North Lawndale, where about one in four children have asthma. That's almost double the city and national rate.
North Lawndale's high pediatric asthma rate has led Sinai Urban Health Institute to team up with housing, legal and other health organizations to target the area with the Healthy Home, Healthy Child program, which provides asthma management education and free resources to families of children 2-14 who live and/or access services in the area.
"Our hope with bringing in these partners is to help with anything that may be taking the focus off that child's asthma," says DeShuna Dickens, a health educator supervisor for the program. The Sinai health educators go into the homes of program participants to identify and help eliminate household items that may agitate children's asthma.
Starts with home visits
Educators visit families six times over the course of a year and help them access services of program partners, such as The Metropolitan Tenants Organization and Chicago Medical Legal Partnership for Children, if there are larger issues preventing care in the home for children with asthma.
Within the first two visits, the educator becomes acquainted with the family and assesses the child's environment. During Turner's second in-home visit, she received a green cleaning kit, which included Bon Ami cleanser, Murphy Oil Soap, vinegar and baking soda.
"I use it, but I like my Pine Sol scent," Turner says.
In addition to the nontoxic, eco-friendly cleaning products, she has recently removed the carpet from the first floor of her home. Alexis is not allergic to their dog, Cocoa, but the 8-year-old makes the canine sleep at the end of her bed anyway now that she has learned about triggers.
Common household asthma triggers include pets, cleaning products, mold, rodents, cigarette smoke and dust mites. Smokers who live at home with the child produce one of the greatest threats for children with asthma. Secondhand smoke and even a smoker's clothing can cause symptoms to flare up. Knowing this, administrators of the Healthy Home, Healthy Child program have planned to offer smoking cessation resources and counseling.
Dickens hopes parents "understand that it's also helping them to think more about what's going on with the child." She adds that parents may notice triggers like the weather, but "other things may be going on in the home that you wouldn't even think about."
A trigger commonly missed by caretakers of children with asthma is pesticides on groceries. Fruits and vegetables must be thoroughly washed and stored at proper temperatures.
Reaching more families
About 45 families have signed up for the program so far. The goal is to bring that number to 300 over the next three years. Sinai Urban Health Institute, part of Sinai Health System, was awarded $1.3 million from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct the three-year program in North Lawndale.
Turner has noticed an improvement in her daughter's condition since she joined the program a few months ago. Alexis doesn't wheeze as much as she used to and her eyes don't water as much, either.
Dickens is also enthusiastic about her progress: "Hopefully, by the end of the program, Alexis will have been very much more improved from where she started."
Taniesha Robinson is a former Chicago Parent intern.