Asthma relief after decades of suffering

April 5, 2018

Cella Roberts uses music to help children find their voices.

A music therapist who loves working with special needs kids, like her own 15-year-old adopted daughter, Cella can use musical jingles to help kids with dyslexia who are struggling to read. Or, she can assemble a choir from those who don’t think they can sing.

Cella Roberts poses for a photo. She has found asthma relief thanks to new treatments.
Cella Roberts has been suffering from complications of asthma for decades. She got used to working even when she was feeling lousy. Now, for the first time in years, her asthma is under control. Photo courtesy of Cella Roberts.

While spending her career helping others, Cella, 54, presumed she was stuck feeling lousy about half the year, every year.

That’s because she has had severe asthma since she was a teen living in New York. It started with bad allergies to dogs, cats, horses and hay. Then, in college, she briefly smoked, which made the asthma worse.

Twice, during visits to farms as a young adult, she had such severe asthma attacks that she couldn’t breathe, turned blue and nearly died before friends could get her help.

Eventually, Cella moved from New York to Florida, where she earned a Master’s in Music Therapy. She and her family later moved to Colorado. No matter where she lived, she’d get sick in the fall and wouldn’t feel well again until the spring.

“I’d have horrible bronchitis and have to go on prednisone and nebulizers and antibiotics. I ‘d have to have a million treatments,” said Cella.

Asthma relief – at last

Then she started seeing Dr. Fernando Holguin, a pulmonary expert for the UCHealth Allergy and Immunology Clinic, part of the Comprehensive Lung and Breathing Program. (To learn more about Holguin, click here.)

Almost immediately, Cella, felt incredible relief.

Cella and Lilly Roberts enjoy having fun together. Here they ride in a race car at an amusement park.
Cella Roberts, with her daughter, Lilly. For years, Cella suffered with uncontrolled asthma. Now, she feels well and can spend more time with her daughter, Lilly, and advocating for other kids with special needs. Photo courtesy of Cella Roberts.

“This is the first time since I was a teen, the first time in 42 years that I haven’t been sick. No antibiotics. No prednisone. No nebulizers. No flu,” Cella said.

“Dr. Holguin took the time to look at me as an individual. I was part of the decision-making. That was big for me. If you’re not on board or you don’t understand your treatment, you can’t get better.

“He’s using state-of-the-art equipment. He has experts. He has research. He has the support staff,” Cella said. “I felt that I was getting the best.”

She appreciates that Holguin never seems rushed, answers all her questions and even gives out his cell number for follow-up questions.

The responsiveness and respect is a marked change from the days when Cella was a young woman and was told that her inability to breathe was “all in her head.”

‘Part of the family’

Holguin said that was hardly the case. Cella was dealing with a chronic disease that in turn, was causing other chronic conditions like rhinitis and sinusitis.

“Asthma can be controlled but not cured,” Holguin said. “It requires a lot of continuous effort.”

Head shot of Dr. Fernando Holguin.
Dr. Fernando Holguin.

He said it’s critical that patients take their medications properly. So once he has zeroed in on the right choice, he goes over technique in detail and patients also meet with the program’s nurse educator, Lynda Ferguson.

“She spends one-on-one time coaching them on use of medications, allergy avoidance and breathing techniques.

“I’m a firm believer that if the patient understands what’s going on, they will be more likely to be more proactive. We will work with them through the ups and downs. Patients have 24/7 access to my cell phone. When they come to the clinic, they are part of the family,’’ he said.

Keeping patients out of the hospital

His aim is to help patients stay well so they don’t need to come to the hospital.

“We can make changes in their care that prevent them from ending up in the emergency room,’’ Holguin said.

In addition to seeing patients, Holguin is researching various aspects of asthma. He said doctors are learning that asthma is much more complex than previously understood.

“It’s not one disease. It’s a combination of many different diseases,” he said.

“More and more, we are understanding that even though many patients may wheeze and have chest tightness, the way they get there is different. Some people have child onset. Others are driven by allergies. Some have the disease during adulthood and lack the other markers. These are important differences,” Holguin said.

He is also studying the connection between obesity and asthma. About 38 percent of people with asthma are obese. In all cases, obesity worsens asthma. And in some cases, obesity leads to asthma.

For Holguin, helping a patient like Cella brings “huge satisfaction.”

“It makes my day,” he said.

‘When I’m healthy, I can do anything’

Feeling well gives Cella more energy and time to support Friendship Circle, a nonprofit that connects teen volunteers with special needs children to give them positive, normal, friendly experiences along with breaks for their parents. Cella became involved with the group first as a beneficiary of the volunteer services. Now, she’s the program director.

She and her former husband adopted their daughter, Lilly, from China 14 years ago.

Cella and Lilly Roberts pose for a photo. We see part of Cella's face on the left and Lilly smiling in the background.
Cella, left, adopted her younger daughter, Lilly, from China. Helping Lilly overcome many health challenges led Cella into her work advocating for special needs kids. Photo courtesy of Cella Roberts.

When they adopted Lilly, now 15, they had no idea that she would have any challenges. But, Cella has an older daughter and noticed that Lilly was developing differently. She suspected something was wrong and genetic tests eventually showed that Lilly was missing part of her fourth chromosome.

“She’s the only one in the world with her exact disease,” Cella said. “It affects her pre-frontal lobe and executive functions. She’s got multiple diagnoses: autism and bipolar (disorder). She has learning disabilities, a poor working memory, slow auditory processing and reactive detachment disorder.”

Lilly also had a tumor removed from her throat when she was just 2. She has been through a great deal in her life already. And Friendship Circle brought some normalcy for both Lilly and her family.

“Your social life increases. You have a fuller, richer life. You have more fun,” Cella said. “We’ve gone to basketball games and violin concerts. Lilly has a buddy who has taken her to paint and to the movies. You’re expanding your family, your skills, your social life and the quality of your life.”

Now Cella relishes the opportunity to enrich the lives of other families who have children with special needs.

“I look at every single family as my personal family. I call them all my kids. I’m a resource person. The system is crazy. I try to connect people to the services they need,” she said.

And the good news is that she can do all of that better now that she’s not sick all the time.

“We’re talking about a huge, huge difference,” Cella said. “I count my blessings every single day. I remember what it’s like to be in bed and be sick. To me, it’s a waste of time, a waste of a life.

“I have so much to do and achieve. When I’m healthy, I can do anything.”


About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Colorado native. She attended Colorado College, thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation, and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summer breaks from college. She is also a storyteller. She loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and was a finalist with a team of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of a deadly wildfire in Glenwood Springs in 1994. Katie was the first reporter in the U.S. to track down and interview survivors of the tragic blaze, which left 14 firefighters dead.

She covered an array of beats over the years, including the environment, politics, education and criminal justice. She also loved covering stories in Congress and at the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint as the Rocky’s reporter in Washington, D.C.

Katie then worked as a reporter for an online health news site before joining the UCHealth team in 2017.

Katie and her husband Cyrus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, have three children. The family loves traveling together anywhere from Glacier National Park to Cuba.