DENVER — With 2021 coming to a close, Denver7 is taking a closer look at some of the topics that made headlines over the past year. Colorado's air quality was one of them.
At one point in August, Denver had the worst air quality in the world, and the hazy skies had a serious impact on Coloradans living with chronic lung conditions.
Steff Lebsack is in that category. She was born prematurely and years later during adulthood, doctors determined she had been born with bronchopulmonary dysplasia.
The chronic lung disease mostly affects preemies born more than 10 weeks before their due date. Many will outgrow all symptoms of the disease. Others, like Lebsack, have lifelong lung problems such as asthma or frequent lung infections.
Lebsack's adulthood has had no shortage of hospital visits.
"I was in the hospital this past week with an ER visit and they let me home," Lebsack said during an interview with Denver7 this summer. "I still have a day-to-day life to live, you know, breathing is effortful, but it's always been like that and I don't know any different."
During the summer as Denver's air quality made headlines, it was a combination of smoke from western wildfires and moderate to high levels of ozone that clouded skylines. The conditions were particularly harmful for people like Lebsack.
"Air pollution has toxins which sort of activate our inflammatory pathways, and people with BPD and asthma are much more sensitive to those pathways getting turned out," said Dr. Anthony Gerber, a pulmonologist at National Jewish Health.
From July to August, Lebsack found herself inside at home more than in the outdoors.
"A normal person without [any] lung disease might feel like, 'Oh, my lungs feel a little bit of burning, a little bit of irritation.' but they're fine," Gerber said. "If you've got that chronic lung disease that burning can turn into a full fledged flare, and you might need to go to the hospital."
On days when Lebsack avoided the outdoors, she relied on her non-invasive ventilator to keep her breathing steady.
"It can be very anxious if you cant breathe. It's a scary feeling," Lebsack said. "There's times I've stopped breathing and been put on a ventilator. I've been on a ventilator multiple times in a past year."
Her condition has never stopped her from achieving and trying to live life to the fullest. In November, she completed a 6k cross country race.
"I kind of have my head in the game, and I'm ready to fight and do whatever it takes," she said.
She credits her team at National Jewish for improving the quality of her life.
"It's a challenge to have BPD and sort of have this your whole life, but that doesn't mean that you can't [do everything]... as we see with Steff. She's married, kids, super active when things are good, so we like to manage it and hope that people can get the best out of life even though they weren't born with totally normal lungs." Gerber said.
"Dr. Gerber is amazing with talking to my care providers in the hospital," Lebsack said. "He has spent a lot of time on my behalf talking to my care providers in the hospital making sure I get what I need, making sure they know what they need to know."