Karson Frownfelter was exhausted.
For three straight years, he had coughed nearly incessantly. Day and night.
He spent much of his school day in the administrative office because he was a distraction to other students. He couldn’t run without completely losing his breath, and his throat was too scratchy to sing in choir. At night, the cough kept Karson — and, often, his family — awake.
“I’m not kidding,” says his mother, Amber. “Coughing, to him, was as much a part of his life as breathing.”
Karson, 14, was on $600 of allergy and asthma drugs a month. He was on steroids and inhalers.
“And still,” Amber says, “it wasn’t giving us control over his situation.”
Vocal cord dysfunction
Finally, Karson’s allergist suggested an exam with Angela Parcaro-Tucker, a speech language pathologist at Ascension Via Christi St. Francis. The first appointment was in March.
Parcaro-Tucker confirmed what the allergist had suspected: Karson suffers from vocal cord dysfunction, a condition in which the vocal cords close off air to the windpipe.
She explains it this way: In humans’ evolutionary history, the vocal cords' primary function is to protect the airway, keeping objects from entering the windpipe. An additional function is to vibrate to produce voice.
In some people, the vocal cords are overly sensitive and close off when they shouldn’t. For Karson, the extra friction of fast breathing caused by exercise and strong odors such as deodorizers sprayed at his school were triggers.
Parcaro-Tucker says vocal cord dysfunction is often misdiagnosed as asthma because the symptoms are similar. Often, patients have both asthma and vocal cord dysfunction.
Parcaro-Tucker taught Karson, who lives near Marquette, breathing exercises and proper swallowing technique. She also told him to take a drink of water when he felt like he needed to cough.
The results were immediate after that first appointment.
“That night, I muted the TV and asked my husband, ‘Do you hear that?’ Amber says. “It was quiet. He wasn’t coughing.”
Karson has continued exercises at home, and weekly, hour-long appointments with Parcaro-Tucker have been reduced to every other week.
He’s not coughing anymore. He’s able to stay in class with his peers. And he even ran on the Little River Middle School 4x100 meter relay team, taking second place at the Wheat State League track meet.
“It’s stuff I’ve never been able to do,” Karson says.
He even taught some of his breathing exercises to his track teammates.
“If it makes it easier for me,” he says, “I wanted to try it on other people.”
‘Spread the word’
Amber says she hopes other parents learn about vocal cord dysfunction, if their child is dealing with a chronic condition such as a cough.
“I want to spread the word,” she says. “This diagnosis can fall between the cracks, and we keep putting drugs in a kid.”
She adds: “Your whole goal as a parent is to get your child raised well and to be healthy. As he gets closer to high school, that’s even more important.”
Karson is excited about the possibilities of high school and beyond. He says continuing his breathing exercises will be easy because of the new doors they’ve opened up for him.
“I just don’t want to cough anymore,” he says.