Faculty voice:

Ryan Thomas: Innovating asthma care

Dec. 4, 2019

Ryan Thomas is a pediatric pulmonologist who provides care to the public at MSU specialty clinics, cystic fibrosis center and pediatric pulmonology in East Lansing. Thomas received his undergraduate degree at MSU in astrophysics in the Lyman Briggs College.

When you grow up with asthma, you get used to coughing. If you get a cold, you’ll get a cough that lasts for three weeks. 

Your classmates might only have the sniffles, but you’ll be up coughing all night. Your classmates might be running around on the playground with their colds, while you’re coughing so much you can’t even go to school because it’s so disruptive.

Growing up with asthma means you’re on plenty of medications, but as you get older you start to question the purpose of those medications. No one else seems to be dealing with the same things you are. 

You start to think, "So what if I cough a lot with colds? I’ll just push through it."

But as you get older, you don’t remember your mother rushing you to the hospital as you struggled to breathe as an infant. 

You don’t know all the nights your mom and dad spent staying up with you and listening to you cough worrying it’ll get worse again. All you care about is not wanting to be different from your friends.

When I grew up, I was drawn to pediatric pulmonology. I grew up with asthma and so did others in my family. When you’ve experienced an illness, your motivation to help people with it increases because you know all of the little ways it can infiltrate and disrupt your life. 

Those shared experiences enable me to connect with my patients in a way that is hard to do if you haven’t lived with it. These connections help me to build trust, which is at the core of the physician-patient relationship.

It’s important that those suffering with asthma or those who have family members suffering understand the burden it can place on people’s lives.

Those nights spent coughing are a drain on the entire household. A child who coughs until he vomits may not be medically concerning, but when it’s in his bed at four in the morning, it’s a big deal for the whole family. 

A child who can’t play sports, run during recess or is limited in any other activities because their breathing limits them is not living his or her best life. Witnessing your child struggling to breathe is a traumatic experience for parents and other members of the family.  

Wondering if you can afford your child’s medication is an awful feeling for a parent. Our goal is to use all of our training to eliminate these burdens and, thankfully, we often have the resources to do so. 

The core of our asthma management is focusing on allowing the child to have a normal life. Whether it’s playing basketball without taking a break, avoiding nights spent coughing or simply never having another emergency room visit. 

As providers, we need to focus on what the child and family value most; otherwise, we're not moving towards mutual goals. We are a team taking care of a child together. 

Frankly, I view the parent as the captain of the ship and myself as more of a navigator giving them advice on the best way to proceed. We both want what’s best for their child, even if we don't always agree on the best way to get there. 

This is the core of our relationship with our patients. Through this relationship, we reach our goals of letting kids just be kids.