By Ellen Fix
More than 16 million Americans have asthma — at least 6 million of whom are children — and some 6,000 die from asthma each year just in the U.S., according to the American Lung Association. But it was the fatal asthma attack of just one metro Atlanta child that motivated Melvin Butler, 52, to do something about it.
Ten-year-old Kellen Bolden collapsed while boarding his school bus in Clayton County.
Upon first meeting Butler, it appears he could well accomplish anything he puts his mind to. Ebullient in personality and effusive in manner, Butler spends most days shining shoes for members of the Concourse Athletic Club on Hammond Drive. There, he hobnobs with a host of moneyed clients, from high-powered attorneys to professional athletes.
“Probably every Republican senator in this area has come through my spot at one time or another,” he claims. Since shoe shining is a one-on-one service, Butler soaks up the scuttlebutt in what he describes as a virtual “town hall meeting every day.”
Butler, the son of a shoeshine parlor owner in St. Louis, knows the business well. Yet what he does for a living pales in comparison to what he pursues to fulfill his life purpose.
As a student at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, he befriended a number of medical students. One of them, Dr. Ted Atkinson joined Scottish Rite Hospital. Atkinson introduced Butler to Sandy Springs resident Dr. Leroy Graham, a pediatric pulmonologist with Georgia Pediatric Pulmonology Associates on Lake Hearn Drive. Graham told Butler the story of former patient Kellen Bolden.
Young Bolden was in severe asthmatic distress as he waited for a school bus in Jonesboro in 2001. No one recognized the signs of his disease, which might have been instrumental in preventing his premature death. The fact is: asthma is the most prevalent chronic pediatric illness and also the leading cause of school absenteeism in Atlanta (Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America).
Not One More Life (NOML), a non-profit organization founded by Dr. Graham to increase asthma awareness, came into being in memory of Bolden. In 2003, Butler became its program director.
Butler has imbued the organization with his personal philosophy that true prosperity has nothing to do with bank accounts but originates from being “spiritually grounded.” In turn, Not One More Life partners with communities of faith to educate broader communities about asthma, its signs and treatments. It also conducts free asthma screenings.
“I wanted to do something to benefit people and not necessarily the pocketbook,” Butler said. “Money is not my God. I’m a communicator, a friend and a facilitator. I coordinate between the faith community and the health community, encouraging people to use their gifts in a positive manner. What I’ve found is, the common thread among (people of) all religions is, they all want to live well and be in good health.”
The people whom Butler serves are primarily African-Americans, who, according to the Centers for Disease Control, tend to have a higher morbidity and mortality rate and less access to care for asthma than the rest of the population. This problem is compounded by Atlanta’s distinction as the nation’s “most challenging place to live with asthma” by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America in 2007.
A study by Georgia Tech and Georgia Power confirmed that diesel fuel from planes at Hartsfield International Airport is a major culprit; yet proximity to the airport is not a factor. The study revealed that coal burned in Georgia Power’s power plants mixes with diesel fumes from Hartsfield and blows through downtown Atlanta and up GA-400 to Alpharetta. Prevailing winds collect the pollutants, dissipate them in various green spaces along the way and eventually carry them east toward Stonecrest Mall.
That contaminants drift such distances became evident to many Sandy Springs residents when smoke from the fires in South Georgia darkened metro Atlanta skies.
Besides the usual suspects such as smog and soot generated by the millions of cars on city streets, substances that might otherwise be considered benign for the general population, such as perfumes and pet dander, can trigger asthma attacks and other respiratory problems.
Yet asthma is still among the most misdiagnosed diseases (www.webmd.com), often mistaken for bronchitis. According to Butler, asthma symptoms often surface in winter when heating units kick up small particles from unsavory air, which blows throughout homes. Another culprit is dead cockroaches – yes, cockroaches – trapped behind drywall in older homes.
Allergy-free products, special furnace filters, duct cleaning and other controls help reduce attacks but do not mitigate outdoor environmental contaminants.
“There is a medical disconnect between health providers and recipients of care,” Butler said. “They speak in medical-ease and most people don’t want to appear dumb so they leave the office and still don’t know anything. In a faith environment you can gain knowledge in a manner that lets you sit there and take it all in.”
Screening involves a confidential survey, followed by a lung function test performed by a respiratory therapist. Results are printed on a patented form the participant may take to a doctor.
Since 2003, NOML has screened more than 1,500 participants. Of those who reported respiratory symptoms, 50 percent had never been diagnosed by a physician. When low lung function is discovered, NOML recommends a complete evaluation by a primary care physician and treatment if necessary.
According to Dr. Gary Montgomery, a NOML’s Board of Directors member who practices with Dr. Graham, 97 percent of participants take their advice.
“The exciting thing is we’re going to a place where people feel safe – a religious facility, where someone they trust is advocating for them and inviting them to participate,” Dr. Montgomery said. “It’s a unique way to get comfortable with medical care. The NOML model of partnering with faith-based groups has proven successful in reaching out to those who need treatment and inspiring the individual to seek care for their condition.”
According to Dr. Montgomery, asthma is the most chronic lung disease affecting children. They have more sensitive airways, and in asthmatics the bronchial tubes are somehow different. He explains children often get better as adults because the airways are less reactive. “But some people don’t grow out of it. Instead, they just ignore it and perhaps limit their participation in sports and exercise.”
NOML’s approach has been so successful that plans are underway to duplicate the model in New York, Detroit, New Orleans, San Antonio, Jackson/Tugaloo and D.C. Additionally, the organization would like to open a free pulmonary clinic.
For information on NOML, visit www.notonemorelife.org or call 404-547-1463.