A student taping windows to keep out smoke.

Isaac Hoops / Sagebrush
Carissa resorted to taping up her windows to keep the smoke out.

Freshmen students began to move into the dorms in early August for the 2021 school year. At this point, the Dixie Fire had been burning for a month. The air quality in Reno was considered unhealthy for sensitive groups. When school resumed on Monday, Aug. 23, the air quality was well into the hazardous category.

I never expected that I would have to take steroids during my first week of college. 

I have had asthma my whole life. There would be times when I had to miss school due to my asthma. I never wanted to miss school. After I returned, I would fall behind in class and struggle for the next few weeks trying to catch up. 

Growing up in California, I’ve had to deal with fires. I had to have a suitcase full of medical equipment in the event I needed it. I grew out of needing this equipment, but still had asthma.

To be proactive for this school year, I bought an air purifier for my room. After having it on nonstop for two days, I was still struggling to breathe. The common area in my dorm room was hazy. Thankfully, I had a family member send me another air purifier as a gift, as I can’t just spend money whenever I want. I work a part-time job on minimum wage, the majority of which goes towards my tuition loans. My inhalers are each over $100, even with insurance, and at the rate I’m using them, I will need replacements every two months. 

On the first day of school, I had to use my highest-intensity inhaler. I have three inhalers, each increasing in intensity compared to the previous. I only use the highest-intensity inhaler for emergencies. I ended up needing to use that inhaler three times on the first day of school. 

Even at night I struggled to breathe. My air purifier was on and I had used my inhaler, but I still couldn’t breathe. I woke up to ash on my pillows. My throat was sore and scratchy from inhaling smoke and coughing all night. It was only the second day of school, and I was going to have to miss it.

When my asthma becomes too much to handle with just the inhalers, I have to take steroids. I rarely have to take steroids. I only really used them when I was younger and less responsible with my health. The steroid works to weaken my immune system, which reduces inflammation and swelling of my lungs. I am a high-risk individual when it comes to COVID-19 with my asthma, but with the steroid weakening my immune system, I was even more at risk.

Some of the side effects I experience while using the steroid are fatigue, headaches, and head fogginess. I am unable to participate in classes with these side effects. Thankfully, my professors were understanding of the situation, but that didn’t mean that I was okay with missing school. 

While professors do go through their syllabi during the first week of school, they also establish connections with students. I pride myself on being a good student. By missing the first week of school, I could come across as a student who doesn’t care about their education. But if I went to class and was unable to pay attention, I would come across as a student who doesn’t care about their education.

On the third day of classes, the university sent out an email to all of its students. The email contained a list of people who were at high risk due to the fires, as well as recommendations to reduce smoke exposure. These recommendations included staying indoors and creating a clean air room. Nowhere in the email did it say what to do regarding attending school if you were a high-risk student. 

I had two choices: either miss school and try to stay healthy, or go to class but risk having asthma attacks, which could lead to going to a hospital. Not all of my professors offered Zoom classes. 

While my professors were okay with me missing class, I was already falling behind. My anxiety was rising and I was on the verge of a panic attack. 

In order for the steroid to be effective, I need to take it every day for a week. In other words, in order to remain healthy, I would need to miss the second week of school as well. I stopped taking steroids. I had no choice. If I missed school, I would fall behind in classes. My mental health would drop, to the point where I would stop going to class altogether. It has happened in the past before, so it’s not like I’m just speculating. Even though I wouldn’t be going to class, I would still have to pay for tuition.

I had to risk getting sicker and possibly having to go to the hospital. And, if I got COVID-19 due to my weakened immune system, dying. 

I used some of my emergency funds to buy N95 masks. They are a lot better at filtering the smoke out, but I still inhale some smoke. I already requested a refill on my inhalers, which has my asthma doctor worried about me. While the air quality got better, it’s getting worse as  you read this. I have to hope that it doesn’t get to the severity it was before. If it does get that bad, I will have to hope that I don’t get to the point where I need to go to the hospital, as I can’t afford it. 

I shouldn’t feel like education and finances are more important than my health, yet here I am, risking my health every day. 

Carrisa Shelton can be reached at sydneyavery@sagebrush.unr.edu or on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.