Hannah Ohman has a new focus as she returns to compete in the 2018 OHSAA Track & Field State Championships tomorrow at the Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium in Columbus. The St. Thomas Aquinas junior will be thinking about breathing from her abdomen after extensive medical testing indicates Hannah has exercise-induced hyperventilation due to vocal cord dysfunction (VCD).
“Exercise-induced hyperventilation due to vocal cord dysfunction is often mistaken as exercise-induced asthma because the noise your breathing makes, called a stridor, is often confused with wheezing, the common symptom with exercise induced asthma,” explained Rajeev Bhatia, MD, medical director of the Clinical Exercise Physiology Lab and a pediatric pulmonologist at Akron Children’s Hospital. “What happens with VCD is that when you go to take a breath, your vocal cords close instead of opening, making you feel like you’re choking.”
For an elite middle distance runner like Hannah, VCD leading to hyperventilation was causing her to pass out on the track. She passed out three times during cross country season last fall alone and she struggled with indoor track this winter, never really achieving her best times. She’s gone to state competition in both track and cross country every year since she was freshman and been a member of a state championship team three times.
“Hannah refused to quit running despite continuously passing out, which was so scary for us,” said her mother, Racheal Ohman. “After the first incident, when she passed out at the Boardman meet, we began searching for answers. But it took many visits with many specialists before we were able to pinpoint exactly what was causing this and rule out what wasn’t causing it.”
It was Dr. Bhatia who would finally figure out the cause after Hannah underwent complex exercise stress testing in his exercise physiology lab in March. This is one of the most comprehensive tests which is available at very few pediatric centers across United States. This test provides detailed assessment of how patient’s heart, lung and muscles respond to exercise and its interpretation needs special expertise.
“Most of my patients are athletes,” said Dr. Bhatia. “I try to push them during the test to reproduce the problematic symptoms as the test becomes progressively difficult. As she was just reaching her peak heart rate, I was able to hear the stridor. And the breathing test we administered after the test ruled out exercise induced asthma. Moreover, with our comprehensive exercise testing we were able to assure her that her symptoms were not caused by anything else, such as a serious cardiac or neurological problem.”
Having a definitive diagnosis was a huge relief for the Ohman family.
“Dr. Bhatia was so phenomenal,” said Racheal. “He called us an hour after her test to let us know it was VCD and that we could begin speech therapy right away to ease the symptoms.”
Racheal credits the work of speech-language pathologist Lisa Gonidakis, MA, CCC/SLP, for helping Hannah make the most of her track season, culminating tomorrow at the State competition in Columbus. She’s provided Hannah with an arsenal of strategies and tools to help her through VCD episodes.
“We use metered, diaphragmatic breathing exercises to help Hannah focus on using her abdominals to breathe instead of her throat and chest,” said Gonidakis. “And we work on relaxation techniques to help her from tensing up as she feels the VCD symptoms coming on.”
“Kudos to Hannah for her drive and dedication in mastering the techniques and strategies needed to treat her VCD,” added Gonidakis.
Good luck to Hannah and her teammates as they line up with the rest of the state qualifiers tomorrow!