Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 10, 2013

A breath of relief for severe asthmatic patients


---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Janet Berryhill thought she made a big mistake after getting the newest treatment aimed at patients with severe and uncontrollable asthma.

“I thought it made things worse,” she said. “I was coughing my lungs out; it was like a smoker’s hack.”

Fortunately, her pulmonologist Joseph Will forewarned her that her asthma could get worse before it got better. Over time, though, she'd see a “little improvement.” He was right, she said.

“I'd like to say I feel brand new, but I really don't," she said. "But that 'little improvement' gave me back my life."

Berryhill, 52, of Kaleva in Manistee County, is one of two area patients who have qualified for bronchial thermoplasty treatment, Will said.

“These are the patients who are the worst of the worst,” said Will, who treated Berryhill at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City. “A very small number, . 5 percent, who are uncontrolled by standard therapy. They are getting admitted to E.R. repeatedly.”

Berryhill had such severe asthma that even a whiff of perfume or cigarette smoke could provoke a severe asthma attack. Recovery takes about a week, putting her on the sofa nearly all the time.

She began the first of three monthly treatments in November. After the second treatment, she felt like she was breathing through a pop straw instead of a coffee stirrer.

"Exercising and walking is new for me," she said. "I can be outside."

She recently painted her bedroom, the first time in years. Her biggest relief is tackling the housework that's piled up over years.

The treatment applies heat to the airways in order to cut down on the excess amount of smooth-muscle tissue. Those excess muscles narrow or constrict during an asthma attack, making it hard to breathe. With less muscle tissue, the airways constrict less and breathing is easier.

The hour-long procedure involves the pulmonologist inserting a flexible bronchoscope through the nose or mouth of a heavily sedated patient. Once the bronchoscope reaches the airway wall, the tip of a small catheter is expanded to touch the airway wall and deliver heat to the excess muscles.

Berryhill said it felt like an "instant freeze."

The treatment was approved three years ago, but Will used it only seven months ago.

“It’s an invasive procedure and that was part of the reason we took our time and waited for the long-term effectiveness and safety data that weighed the risks and benefits,” Will said. “They were watching for, and did not see, a drop in lung function or scarring of the lungs. None of that showed up.”