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Local tyke is asthma ambassador

Gabriel Stewart's 'Groupies' will be out in force at Saturday fund raiser
by: Submitted photo,  
Philip Stewart holds his son Gabriel during last year’s Asthma Walk at Willamette Park in Portland. Gabriel was diagnosed with asthma when he was six months old. He will be an ambassador for this year’s walk which takes place Saturday.

Gabriel Stewart loves Thomas the Tank Engine. The three-year old Lake Oswego resident spent much of his summer at George Rogers Park, playing on the structures there and shooting hoops with his dad Philip.

'He's quite the monkey,' said his mother Bev Stewart. At a glance, Gabriel looks just like a normal three-year old. But he has had more than his fair share of hardships.

Gabriel was born premature and without thumbs or the radius bone in his left arm. He has had to undergo three surgeries already with more scheduled in the future.

But, perhaps even more frightening for Bev and Philip was when their son was diagnosed with asthma when he was just six months old. Bev had noticed that Gabriel appeared to be having trouble breathing, taking short gasping breaths and she quickly took him to the hospital.

'He had trouble catching his breath and his lips turned blue. It was very scary because we knew that respiratory problems are the leading cause of deaths in infants,' Bev said.

It is rare for a child to be diagnosed with asthma at such a young age. With proper medication, Gabriel's asthma has been controlled and, now that he is talking, he can communicate with his parents and let them know how he is feeling.

Still, it has been an extensive learning experience for the Stewarts.

'It definitely affects your life on a daily basis with all of the little changes you have to make,' Stewart said.

Along with making sure that Gabriel takes his medication twice a day and always has his inhaler with him in case an attack strikes, they also have to make sure that Gabriel is not in environments where his lungs could be agitated like smoky restaurants or houses with pet dander. They also need to make sure that he has a flu shot prior to the winter.

Shortly after Gabriel was diagnosed with asthma, Bev took a new job with the American Lung Association as its asthma program manager.

'I figured I could give a parent's perspective. I thought I knew a lot about (asthma) when I started the job but I quickly found out that I knew nothing,' she said with a smile.

Much of her job entails getting information out to the public and to legislators about asthma. While there have been many recent successes in the United States in regards to heart disease and most forms of cancer, lung disease has doubled in the past 20 years and asthma still has no cure.

'I think asthma and lung disease can get dismissed because it's so common. Everyone knows someone with it. So, because of that, there is not a lot of money designated for research,' Stewart said.

In Oregon alone, 347,000 people suffer from asthma and 73,000 of those are children under the age of 18.

Part of Stewart's job is also to help with putting on the American Lung Association's annual fund raisers in the Portland Metro area.

Along with the Reach the Beach and Reach the Summit events, one of the largest fundraisers during the year is the upcoming Asthma Walk.

The Portland event, which takes place at 10 a.m. on Saturday, is the third annual and will be held at Willamette Park. The walk is a 5k event in which participants raise money through pledges. This year, the committee is hoping to have 400 walkers and raise more than $100,000.

The Stewarts walked in the event last year with Gabriel seated in a stroller, but this year, the youngster will take on a much larger roll.

Not only will he be the captain of a team of walkers called Gabriel's Groupies, which consists of friends and family members of the Stewarts', but he will also be one of two ambassadors for the walk.

'He blew the whistle at the kick-off event last month. We want to have him be as visible as possible,' Stewart said.

Gabriel will put a recognizable face on the event and hopefully bring more awareness to asthma in Oregon.

All of the money from the event goes to the American Lung Association and helps with research and programs. The Stewarts are looking forward to a successful event this weekend as the weather is supposed to be ideal, perfect for a three year old who loves the outdoors.

For more information on the walk, including how to donate money and participate, go to http://www.lungoregon.org/ .