Fighting for air

Stair climbers around St. Louis will come together to climb 40 floors and 856 stairs of the Metropolitan Square building in the Fight For Air Climb to raise money and awareness for lung diseases

By Charlotte Beard

Imagine sitting still or lying in bed and discovering that without warning the air getting to your lungs has become limited or cut-off completely by some seemingly invisible force. On April 4, stair climbers around St. Louis will come together to climb 40 floors and 856 stairs of the Metropolitan Square building bringing awareness and simulating breathing challenges of lung diseases at the annual Fight For Air Climb event and fundraiser. The event will begin at 7 a.m. at 1 Metropolitan Square in St. Louis. 

A signature event of the American Lung Association, the Fight For Air Climbs are held in skyscrapers around the country on the same day and at the same time. 

“The idea of the stair climb began more than 30 years ago in our Chicago, Illinois office,” stated Brett Schuette Executive Director for American Lung Association in Missouri. “Back then we wanted to find a way to get people engaged with our organization through something that was unique that they were able to do during the winter months. We have a lot of active people in the community that really the only thing they can do during the winter months is (go to) the gym. That’s how the stair climb begin but it also gives our climbers a comparable experience of fighting for air while stair climbing because it’s similar to the breathing struggles of those suffering from lung disease. So, from that (idea) it was well-received there. Now it’s implemented in more than 60 cities across the country. Some other non-for-profits have adopted that idea to do stair climbs from our Fight For Air Climb.”

This year marks the 12th climb event for the American Lung Association in Missouri. When asked about the level of participation in St. Louis, Schuette stated that last year 1,150 participants participated in the climb. This year the association anticipates having 1,400 to 1,500 climbers.

Some participants have made the climb their annual event. Since 2018, Brittany Graham has spent her birthday participating in the Fight For Air Climb in honor of her mother, Cindy, who died from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) in 2017. Last year her mom’s best friend, Paula Korman, joined her in the climb.

Graham’s mom battled a cough for about three years. The doctors first thought it was allergies, but the cough worsened making conversations challenging. Then she was diagnosed with pneumonia, which led to more tests on the origin of her cough. She was diagnosed with IPF, a progressive lung disease, and multiple myeloma, a form of cancer at the age of 60. After the diagnosis, Graham’s mom moved in with her. As a result of her illness, she had four hospitalizations in a six-month period. 

“Her lungs were 40 percent scarred,” stated Graham. “She needed a lung transplant but couldn’t get one because of the multiple myeloma. At age 28, ready or not, I became my sweet momma’s caregiver and embarked on what would be the most painfully beautiful experience of my life.”

After her mom endured numerous challenges her mom went into hospice August 2016. She passed away Dec. 8, 2017.

“We were both too young for this. We didn’t see it coming,” Graham stated. “It was the honor of a lifetime to be able to take care of her.” 

One day while driving home Graham saw a billboard for the Fight For Air Climb at Metropolitan Square, which happened to be on the weekend of her birthday. She decided to sign up to memorialize her mother. 

“Nothing can ever replace what Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis took from me,” stated Graham. “My mom won’t zip up my wedding dress. She won’t babysit her grandchildren. She won’t meet me for any more dinners on Friday night. Despite these harsh realities, I’ll fight until my last breath to help find a cure for this deadly disease, so other people don’t have to travel the same devastating journey my mom and I traveled.”

Over the last several years, participant efforts around the country have raised more than $53 million combined to support the mission of the American Lung Association. Schuette estimates that the St. Louis climb has raised over $3 million to-date. 

“With the funds that are raised through the Fight For Air Climb we do quite a bit of (things),” shared Schuette. “One of the things that we’re proud of is that we invest in research – we added new research awards to our grant program. From that there is some research that is being done at Washington University.”

When asked about the specifics on the research being done, Schuette shared that one of the things being explored are the various ways medicine can quickly breakup mucus in the lungs for asthma sufferers, as well as those with COPD, cystic fibrosis and other lung diseases. He shared that the research also centers on lung disease scenarios involving DNA. 

“With the research that we do here in St. Louis we also have our Airways Clinical Research Center,” stated Schuette. “(Also), thanks to our advocacy efforts, 11 more states passed laws raising the legal age of tobacco sales to 21. We created the first lung cancer screening implementation guide to help community hospitals and health systems institute and implement life-saving lung cancer screening systems. Those are just a few of the things that we’ve done with the money that is raised from the Fight For Air Climb.” 

Additionally, according to Schuette the association has staff that makes visits to the homes of children with severe asthma and allergy to provide education on the proper usage of inhalers and bring awareness to triggers of asthma attacks that may be specific to a child. Education is also provided to school nurses in identifying an asthma attack, for example, and what action to take in such circumstances.

While the American Lung Association believes in education for adults who care for youth who suffer with a lung disease, the association is also challenged with education for the community at-large.

Schuette states, “There are a couple common misconceptions about lung disease and more specifically about lung cancer. One of the common misconceptions is that people get lung cancer only by smoking which is not the case. More and more we’re seeing that people are getting lung cancer who are non-smokers – who have never smoked a day in their life. The second (misconception) is that for women the number one cancer killer is breast cancer when it’s not – it’s lung cancer. In general, breast cancer is very important, and women need to do whatever they can to bring awareness in the month of October and get their mammograms. Something that we like to say is that you also (must) take care of your lungs. So, we need to bring more awareness to the population that lung cancer is the number one killer of women. If you are a smoker we encourage you to quit and talk to your physician about getting a low dose CT scan to see if there is a possibility that you have lung cancer because it can be detected through the low dose CT scan.”

For more information about the low dose CT scan visit https://www.lung.org and find ‘Saved By The Scan’ under the ‘Our Initiatives’ menu. For more information and to register for the Fight For Air Climb, visit FightForAirClimb.org/StLouis. You may also contact Hannah Rae Warrick by email –HannahRae.Warrick@lung.org or phone at 314-449-9148.

CUTLINE: Submitted photos 

Cover-Climb1 Brittany Graham (right) and her mom’s best friend Paula Korman last year at the Fight For Air Climb.

Cover-Climb2 Brittany Graham (top) stands with her late mother Cindy, who passed away from the lung disease Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis.