Marvin Stallings Jr. struggled with asthma all his life.
It prevented “Fat” — his nickname after weighing 9 pounds at birth — from playing football, and he carried his inhaler everywhere.
But his family never thought an asthma attack would be fatal.
“This particular time he was fine,” said his mother, Dianne Stallings. “He went to work that day at Wal-Mart. He was wheezing a little bit, they were telling me. He got off of work to come home. I guess I don’t know what happened.”
On Nov. 6, 2013, the Brusly-raised 18-year-old became one of the nine Americans who die each day from asthma.
When he didn’t answer texts or phone calls from his mother after his shift ended at the Port Allen Wal-Mart, she went to look for him and found him dead in his car in the parking lot.
His death came without warning. His father and sister lived with asthma, too, and the family diligently treated the condition.
“He had asthma since he was a baby,” Dianne Stallings said. “It would go in and out. He would have some good months, and he would have bad months.”
One in 12 Americans has asthma, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, yet it is an often misunderstood condition, said Tracy Marquette, an asthma educator for Baton Rouge’s Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital.
Asthmatics have constant swelling in the bronchial tubes that carry air into the lungs. Certain environmental factors or allergens — especially smoke, pollen and dust — can exacerbate that swelling.
“The perception is ‘My asthma comes and goes,’” Marquette said. “That’s what people think. The swelling can increase, but there is always some there.”
Asthma attacks occur when bronchial muscles tighten and pinch the tubes, which allows less air into the lungs. Certain types of inhalers can relax these muscles. Other types of inhalers are used daily to decrease the bronchial swelling.
“Asthma cannot be completely healed,” Marquette said. “It can’t be cured. But it can be controlled.”
The number of asthma sufferers has risen every year for the past three decades, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, and it has become an extremely expensive disease. According to the foundation, it costs Americans $56 billion a year and, each day, nine Americans die from asthma.
Asthma affects each person differently. Some have more severe swelling than others.
However, some added health concerns exacerbate the disease. Obesity increases the effects of asthma, as do some types of acid reflux.
Many people — including asthma patients themselves — just don’t take the disease seriously, Marquette said.
“It’s something clearly that can take a life,” she said. “We have to buy into our own health.”
Stallings agreed. Others outside her family didn’t always believe Marvin Jr. was truly sick.
“A lot of people thought he used it as an excuse. But, no, he wasn’t using it as an excuse,” Stallings said of her son. “He was an asthma patient.”
Marvin Jr. was a joyful young man who loved playing video games and spending time with friends. He was attending ITI Technical College in Baton Rouge and planned to work in a petrochemical plant.
“I have the question sometimes, ‘Why my child?’” Stallings said. “I’m not supposed to question, but I do sometimes.”
Since her son’s death, Stallings has started an asthma awareness foundation called TUFF, which stands for Turn Up For Fat. More than 300 people participated in the organization’s first event, an asthma awareness walk, last year. TUFF will sponsor its second walk in Brusly next month, and the organization plans to provide two scholarships to Brusly High School students.
“We’re trying to get the word out there,” Stallings said, “so they don’t have to go through what I’ve gone through.”