'It's like having a rubber band around your chest'

Lesley De Meza


Age group 7 to 12 Channel 4 Wednesdays 9.30am Asthma Club October 11 Sammi's Story October 18 "The Asthma Club Video" Pounds 9.95 The Educational Television Company, 01926 433333.

Jason, Charlene, Emma and Lee all have asthma, and Sammi Sparke has cystic fibrosis. Watching these programmes reveals a great deal about both conditions and how isolating they can be for their sufferers.

The Asthma Club begins with a filmed sequence of youngsters having a good time and as one member of the "asthma club" recalls a severe and scary attack he suffered at school, the film slips deftly into sepia colours.

When it comes to medical explanations of how the lungs and bronchial tract work we are treated to a cheerful cartoon peopled with "cleaner and mender" cells. We also meet Emma who is so het up about having asthma that she denies she has it. But in a positive tribute to good peer education, her classmates who own up to being asthma sufferers, help Emma come to terms with it. Charlene, Jason and Lee talk to her about using preventers and relievers because they can help to alleviate the symptoms. As Jason points out, "It's no big dealI and it stops that feeling of a tight rubber band round your chest or, worse still, like having someone sit on you."

We learn about the degrees of the problem, how "preventers" work on the cause, calming and sooth-ing the airways. "Relievers" can give quick solutions by easing the symptoms.

Asthma doesn't have to be a disabling condition, as we find out when, with the children in the programme, we meet Karen Pickering, gold medal-winning swimming champion, who confesses that she and three of her team-mates have asthma and never go anywhere without their inhalers.

Sammi Sparke's problem is different. She has cystic fibrosis, an inherited disease which affects her breathing and digestive systems. When we first hear Sammi talking about her illness she appears in an animated film, a small, bubbly, little girl with obvious breathing difficulties.

She explains how daily physiotherapy and medication help her to live a fairly normal life. Then the scene changes and the cartoon room becomes bleak and grey, small cherubic angels float down and carry her off, while Sammi's voiceover talks about how she thinks about dying, and that when she feels worried and scared she talks to her family. The fact is that many people with cystic fibrosis do die young.

However, the film is not all doom and gloom. Sammi talks about her varied activities: swimming, ballet, tap-dancing and being a Guide. She tells us that when she was born, the life expectancy of most people with cystic fibrosis was 15. With medical advances and continued research some people are still alive at 30, with children of their own.

In the second part of the programme we meet the real Sammi. A bright, cheerful, independent and pretty young woman who takes pleasure in riding horses and singing lessons, both of which help her breathing and physiotherapy. By now Sammi is taking charge of her life. Annoyed by a younger brother who is taller and bigger than herself, we know that Sammi is a fighter.

We follow her to the hospital where she asks her doctor what future options are available. Sammi is interested in the possibility of a cure through "gene therapy", but that's a long way off. Although both these programmes are positive and helpful - for both pupils living with the illnesses and their classmates - I would urge teachers to view them carefully and plan thoughtfully, with the teacher's notes, before using them. Questions about these illnesses may bring up the issues of death and bereavement.

If you have a child in your class with cystic fibrosis or asthma, check out how they feel before running a lesson on it. It is important to remember that young people don't like to feel different from their peers.

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