Laurel Griggs, who first won over Broadway at the age of six starring alongside Scarlett Johansson in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, died November 5 at the age of 13 from an asthma attack.
The theater community is grieving the young actress, who also starred in several movies and television shows, including Saturday Night Live, and many have voiced surprise at how the common lung condition could turn deadly.
“It’s with heavy heart that I have to share some very sad news. My beautiful and talented granddaughter, Laurel Griggs, has passed away suddenly from a massive asthma attack,” Laurel’s grandfather, David B. Rivlin, shared to Facebook on November 6. “Mount Sinai was valiant in trying to save her but now she’s with the angels.”
Laurel’s father, Andrew Griggs, told CNN that his daughter had been battling asthma for two years. While she would go months at a time without any issues, he still took her in for constant medical checkups. However, when Laurel suffered an asthma attack on November 5, she went into cardiac arrest. Two hours later, she died.
"I think everybody did everything they could," her father said. "It just comes so suddenly."
What is asthma, exactly?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2017 over 25 million people in the United States suffered from asthma—a little over eight percent of the population. Of that number, six million are children. In fact, the CDC reports that it is one of the most common long-term diseases of children. While asthma isn’t a death sentence for the majority of those who suffer from it, 3,564 people died from it in 2017 alone.
Generally speaking, asthma is a disease that affects your lungs, causing repeated episodes of wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness, and nighttime or early morning coughing, according to the CDC.
“Asthma is the inability to get air out due to inflammation and narrowing of your airways for important gas exchange (trading carbon dioxide for oxygen) that your body needs to oxygenate your body,” Purvi Parikh, MD, an allergist with Allergy & Asthma Network, tells Health. “Thus, Carbon dioxide builds up in your blood and can cause you to stop breathing.”
Symptoms include excessive coughing (especially at night), breathing problems, chest tightness, wheezing, and colds lasting more than 10 days.
The cause of asthma is still largely unknown, but experts believe there are genetic, environmental, and occupational factors linked to the disease, like exposure to mold or dampness, allergens like dust mites, and even secondhand tobacco smoke.
While there’s no cure for asthma, there are ways to control it, most effectively by taking medication—either via an inhaler or in pill form.
Okay, but what is an asthma attack—and how can someone die from one?
An asthma attack can occur when an individual is exposed to “asthma triggers,” which can vary from person to person. It can include coughing, chest tightness, wheezing, and trouble breathing, due to airways swelling and shrinking, making less air able to get in and out of your lungs.
Death from a fatal asthma attack is due to respiratory failure, according to Geoffrey Chupp, MD, director of the Asthma and Airways Disease Program at Yale Medicine. “The airways are severely constricted from spasm of the surrounding muscle and there is inflammation and mucus in the bronchial tree to the extent that the patient can’t expand their lungs adequately to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide,” he explains. “They lose consciousness and their heart stops beating properly from a lack of oxygen”—that’s when cardiac arrest, or the loss of heart function, comes into play.
There are multiple causes for these sort of attacks, says Dr. Chupp. “The patient could have a sudden attack from exposure to an allergen, such as nuts, or some kind of chemical exposure,” he explains. It can even be in the setting of a viral infection such as influenza or pneumonia from a bacteria. While it most commonly happens to patients with chronically severe disease, it can happen to patients with mild disease as well.
He reiterates that an individual dying from an asthma attack is relatively rare. “It is often a tragic situation in an otherwise healthy person such as Ms. Griggs,” Dr. Chupp explains. And again, Dr. Parikh points out that there are millions of people who live with asthma without any issue if well controlled.
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