LaRetta Fisher, 31, is celebrating the one-year anniversary since Dr. Ganesh Krishna performed bronchial thermoplasty on her. Fisher said the procedure changed her life — improving her lung function so much that in July she was able to compete in her first ever Tough Mudder half-marathon race, which has contestants crawl through mud, swing on monkey bars and hop over obstacles in a grueling run through the mountains.
Krishna, an interventional pulmonologist at El Camino Hospital, said that Fisher was an ideal candidate for the procedure, which was only approved by the FDA three years ago. Since she was diagnosed at age 2, she has struggled to keep her asthma in check, even while taking the maximum doses of some of the strongest asthma medications available.
Growing up, Fisher's family was trained to steer her away from anything that might cause her to have an attack, and were well-versed in what to do if she was exposed to something that set her off. In college, Fisher made sure to give her friends and professors crash courses on what to do if her asthma struck, and on more than one occasion, instructors called 911 for her in class.
As she got older and her symptoms didn't improve, her doctor told her bluntly that she would die of asthma unless she took action. That action came last summer, when she decided to make the trip to Mountain View to see Krishna, one of the leading experts in bronchial thermoplasty in the nation and the head of one of only two centers licensed to teach the technique to doctors.
During a typical bronchial thermoplasty procedure, a doctor takes a specialized catheter fitted with an electrode at the end and guides it through a patient's throat into the airways of the lungs — a network of tiny tubes that branch out like roots.
The airways of the lungs are coated with what is called "smooth muscle," which can contract to help a person work irritants or mucus out from deep in the lungs. However, during an asthma attack, these smooth muscles often contract so much that it becomes difficult to breath.
Using the electrode at the end of the specialized catheter, doctors send radio waves into the smooth muscle tissue, which causes the tissue to shrink, without damaging or destroying it. The mechanism by which the radio waves shrink the muscle is not entirely understood, but the result is that asthma attacks typically become less severe and much more manageable after the procedure is completed.
That was certainly the case with Fisher. "I wouldn't have been able to do Tough Mudder" if it weren't for the bronchial thermoplasty, she said. "It totally changes your life if you have severe asthma. I still have asthma, but it's much better."