By Gary Fitzgerald
Crystal Garrett was diagnosed with asthma at the age of 4. “It was hard growing up with the disease,” says Garrett, who hails from Columbia, South Carolina, “but the good thing about it was that it taught me to be resilient at a very early age. I learned the right balance of medication and exercise to keep my asthma under control. I learned how to read my body to determine when my breathing was struggling so I could quickly take action.”
Garrett’s resiliency paid off, allowing her to turn her dreams into reality. Crowned Miss South Carolina in 2007, she has become an accomplished singer, actress and dancer. And through her foundation Preparing and Empowering Asthmatic Kids (PEAK), she speaks at schools, camps and community organizations about asthma.
Now in her 30s and living in Atlanta, Garrett is active in climate change and clean air initiatives. In 2015, she was invited to speak at a White House climate change summit.
“I believe it is a human right to have clean air to breathe,” she says. “Sometimes it’s hard to just go outside for a run because of smog and high pollen levels. This is not the way it should be. It’s important to address climate change now so that future generations have clean air and a stable environment to enjoy.”
Garrett recently took part in a Q&A interview with Allergy & Asthma Network:
Q: At what are were you diagnosed with asthma?
A: I was diagnosed with allergy-induced asthma at the age of 4.
Q: What are your asthma triggers?
A: The biggest ones are pollen, mold and dust. I really wish I could live in an allergy-free bubble at times.
Q: Talk about growing up with asthma. How did you learn to manage the condition through the years?
A: It was hard growing up with asthma, but the good thing about it was it taught me to be resilient and self-sufficient at a very early age. I had to keep up with my medication schedule, to take my inhaler and my allergy medications. Working with my doctors, we learned the right balance of medication and exercise to keep my asthma under control.
I also had to learn how to read my body to tell as early as possible when my lungs were getting into trouble – so that I could quickly take action. When I was young, it was hard not being able to play freely with my friends outside. They were able to run, skipand jump outside at a moment’s notice; whereas I had to make sure I took a couple of puffs of my albuterol before I could even set foot outdoors most days.
My friends didn’t understand and it made me feel
different. But later in life I realized that being different isn’t so bad. I am actually able to help a lot of people who are like me and share my story because I am different. I consider life to be a gift and I do not take it for granted. This mindset helps me to get a lot more out of my life while I help others to do the same.
Q: How did you stay active while managing asthma?
A: My father quickly put me into a youth basketball league when he and my mother found out I had asthma. He told me that we would get this under control. He exact words were, “You will control your asthma, Crystal – your asthma will not control you.” He was a drill sergeant in our US Army at the time and I was in no position to argue!
I’m thankful for his attitude because the exercise my lungs got from being on that youth league helped me expand my lung capacity and made it so much easier to manage my asthma. The key to exercising as an asthmatic is to know your own body and understand when it’s time to take a break. Gradually you’ll see that you are able to do more and more.
Q: Many asthma patients say an asthma flare feels like their lungs are on fire. What does an asthma flare-up feel like to you?
A: Saying that your lungs feel like they are on fire is an excellent description of what a person with asthma goes through during an asthma attack! It is so scary that at times it is really easy for me to spiral into a panic attack on top of having an asthma attack. It’s hard to try to stay calm in these situations but it really is the best thing, to make sure that everything doesn’t get much worse than it already is.
Q: Is your asthma well controlled now?
A: My asthma is well controlled. Asthma flares are few and far between now that I have come to know my body and recognize early signals of an attack.
Q: Why did you want to start PEAK and how does it help kids with asthma?
A: I started it when I was 15 years old. Through it I speak at schools and in government arenas about asthma and how people with asthma can prepare themselves for successful lives.
I also attend asthma camps as a camp counselor to volunteer during the summer. I host an event called Princess Workshop through Family Connection, an organization that links the families of disabled children to other families with disabled children as a support group. I gather 12 girls, their disabilities ranging from asthma to autism, and they come and get their hair and nails done. There is also a crowning ceremony at the end. It is about building self-esteem for each girl. They get to forget about the hospital and the medications and just focus on how amazing they all are and truly see the unique attributes they have in making this world a better place.
Q: In summer 2015, you spoke at the White House Climate Change Summit about living with asthma. Why is climate change and clean air such an important topic for you?
A: Climate change and health are one in the same. If we do not have clean air to breathe, nothing else matters. It is our human right to have clean air to breathe. This is a very important topic for me because it is important to improve climate change now so that the generations to come have clean air and a stable climate to enjoy.
It is time for all nations to work together in order to succeed in turning this epidemic around.
Q: Have you experienced the effects of climate change personally where you live in South Carolina, or in an activity you enjoy?
A: I live in Atlanta and experience the effects of climate change even more than I did when I lived in South Carolina. Living in a big city it is hard to even go for a run on a nice day outside because of all the high smog and pollen levels. This is not the way it should be. We should be able to enjoy the city or location that we live in without worrying about air pollution levels every day.
Q: What drives you to be involved with so many pursuits: singing, modeling, acting, asthma advocate?
A: They all go hand and hand in my world. I love acting because it allows me to be completely free for a moment and I’m able to bring truth to so many stories in hopes that it touches my audience in some way. Whether it’s laughter or tears of sadness or joy, I love to make people feel true emotion.
One of my childhood doctors told me that because of my asthma I would never be able to be the powerhouse singer I desired to be. Boy, was he wrong. I worked hard every day to overcome the obstacle of living as a child with asthma so that I could make my dreams come true.
My advocacy comes natural to me, it always has. I want people to be aware of climate change so that we all can do something about it and quickly. And I want all people with asthma to take a page from my book and shape their own personal stories of success.
All of my pursuits have become a part of me and add up to make me the woman that I am. It is a tough balancing act, but I feel my life is so rewarding!
Q: Does asthma impact your singing at all?
A: Asthma can impact my singing. I started taking voice lessons at the age of 14 and continued my voice education at the University of South Carolina. I learned the correct and healthy way of singing by studying classical vocal techniques – I still use them to this day. They help me sing through any congestion I may have that day, without putting a strain on my voice.
I also learned breathing techniques that help me in my singing and everyday life. I often use them in my warm-up process with my classical technique training.
Q: Are there any asthma or allergy triggers common in performance halls or backstage (dust, for example)?
A: Of course! Dust and mold take residence in most theaters and recording studios unfortunately. My trick is to continuously blow my nose. I know it sounds weird but it helps me to constantly keep all of those triggers out of my body that would otherwise just sit there and cause mucus in my nose, which always leads to postnasal drip. It helps a lot. I also drink lots of tea with honey and room temperature water to make sure there is always something soothing coating my throat.
Q: What message do you want to send parents and kids with asthma about managing asthma?
A: Be aware, not scared of your child’s asthma. Help your child to see that they are unique and they can achieve whatever their hearts desire just so long as they work hard to manage their asthma and are able to read their own bodies.
Working with doctors to find the perfect balance of medication for each individual child is vital. Just because your child was diagnosed with this condition does not mean their life has been placed on hold. It is still important to push and encourage them to strive towards excellence.