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Gasping for Air Book Review

Book Review: Gasping for Air
By Kevin Chiou, Rutgers University ’17, Communications & Marketing Intern

In Gasping for Air: How Breathing Is Killing Us and What We Can Do About It, Kevin Glynn, MD, a pulmonologist, American Thoracic Society member, and lifelong sufferer of asthma, seeks to enlighten us about the world of pulmonary health care. With five decades of experience as a medical practitioner and storyteller, he recounts events from the past, allowing us to observe the history and development of respiratory medicine. Dr. Glynn’s accounts and recollections pay tribute to the wonders of human ingenuity, sacrifice, and most importantly, our strength and compassion. As he puts it so eloquently: “We breathe to live, not live to breathe.”

The single greatest factor pushing the field of medicine forward is the creation of new technologies and innovations through research and application. In the case of pulmonary health and medicine, real progress did not occur until the 20th century. Innovation is oftentimes borne out of necessity, and the technological innovations in respiratory health care are no exception. The tuberculosis and subsequent pneumonia epidemics served as the catalyst for the first real forays into the field of pulmonary science. From then on came scientific discoveries and engineering accomplishments such as vaccines, iron lungs, antibiotics, and many more. Dr. Glynn describes how Edward Trudeau established the first tuberculosis sanatorium in the United States, and how it changed the way we think about treating illnesses with rest. He describes John Haven Emerson, who created a more affordable and accessible iron lung that was sold to hospitals throughout the country, decreasing polio mortality rates. He tells the story of Alvan Barach who first used oxygen therapy to treat patients with emphysema and Thomas Petty who used these ideas to implement a revolutionary pulmonary rehabilitation program that would change how we treat COPD. Stories like these told throughout the book highlight the importance of scientific research, and how medical breakthroughs can change the lives of millions of individuals who have suffered, and are suffering from respiratory illnesses every day for the better.

However, perhaps the greatest strength of Dr. Glynn’s book comes from his personal experiences from working with patients suffering from respiratory illnesses. Thirty-six million Americans live with respiratory impairment, each one with a story to tell. More than just another statistic, these stories offer unique perspectives from an emotional and humanizing point of view. They offer a way for the reader to identify and empathize, while imparting a deeper understanding of these diseases and the efforts to fight them. Ray was a patient of Dr. Glynn’s who was suffering from COPD. A retired professional golfer, Ray and Dr. Glynn became close and eventually developed a friendship with Ray even offering him golf lessons. Despite receiving continuous therapy for several years, Ray quickly deteriorated and eventually passed away from his illness. This story illustrates the complexity of relationships that doctors have with their patients. Also, it opens the conversation about what makes life worth living, and the door to the realm of bioethics.

As the last story indicates, respiratory health concerns have shifted away from infectious diseases to ones of dirty air: COPD, lung cancer, and asthma. Dr. Glynn warns that technological innovation must push forward to treat the diseases of tomorrow. We must be mindful of the wishes of the patient, and think in their best interests and of their quality of life. With final parting words, Dr. Glynn offers a message of hope and endurance, and states “as today is better than yesterday, so tomorrow can be better than today.”

Editor’s note: The ATS does not endorse any of the programs or products mentioned in this column.