THE ROOM IS bright and cheerful and the people seem the same. There is an air of conviviality.
We are all here for one reason -- asthma.
This is an evening meeting of the Baltimore Area Asthma and Allergy Support Group.
Asthma affects more than 10 million Americans, including 2.5 million children. There has been an alarming rise in the disease in the past 10 years, and no one is sure why. Maryland is estimated to have 220,000 people with asthma.
This is my first asthma support meeting, and I am here because my 2 1/2 -year-old grandchild is an asthmatic.
I am learning how to help and to accept. Asthma knows no socio-economic boundaries, and there are all ages here tonight.
Martha Dewey, a mother and speech therapist, is president of this two-year-old group and editor of the newsletter. Martha and her husband have an 8-year-old asthmatic boy. So they have been down the traumatic road of learning to cope. As with so many parents, it was all new and frightening to her at one time.
As it was to us.
My own daughter called me one morning last year and said, ''Mom, Max has just had a bad asthma attack in the middle of the night, we've just spent the morning at the hospital.''
I was stunned. No one on either side of our family had had that. We'd had other things but not THAT. He had a hard time getting his breath, and his lungs made a huffing sound on each exhale -- signs of the onslaught of the disease.
I said all the first denial things like, ''Oh, I imagine it is temporary . . . he won't have one again . . . maybe it's just croup.''
Then there was the diagnosis and prognosis, both of which are scary to a new mother. He is a severe asthmatic. With a heavy heart, I tried to assimilate the news and his future.
So we are learning management of the disease. Treatment has improved.
And at the support group some of the depression and apprehension is softened by other parents' stories, and the information that is passed around and absorbed.
This particular night, Dr. Gloria Kay Vanderhorst, a clinical child psychologist, talks on ''Sick and Scared: What Your Child Can't Tell You.''
She tells us that the child must develop his or her own resources, and the parents must learn effective ways to provide comfort during the attack. She suggests tactile props: ''Silky smooth material, a blanket, food -- something to hold on to, or story-telling on the part of the parent.''
''Give your child a smorgasbord of needs, not solutions. Let the child make his choices,'' she adds.
Accepting the asthma is part of the battle, she tells the group, there must be no denial.
A couple ask the doctor about their 10-year-old who feels isolated because he had to be out of school and has to be on medication at school.
''Tell him he IS different, but that he is going to learn to live with that part of him -- other parts of him are the most important parts."
Questions range from how to handle the family to how to find the right doctor.
Vanderhorst sums up that fear comes in all sizes. And asthma is wrought with fear. To shrink fear, separate the big fears from the small ones. Do an inventory of your own fears. A child can sense fear or confusion in a household. Yes, of course, you too are afraid.
After I left this gentle group I thought about the fear factor; many of us suffer from fear within the perimeter of disease. And the doctor is right, by listing priorities and categorizing our fears, we can better deal with the problems.
Thanks to skilled doctors, a home nebulizer machine with medication, and support groups such as this one, we as a family are holding our own. And as our love surrounds my little grandchild, he too, already seems, amazingly, to accept.
For support groups in Maryland call the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America: 532-4135. For further information call: the National Asthma Center in Denver (toll free) 800-222-5864 or the National Foundation for Asthma: 602-323-6046.