KANSAS CITY, Kan. — With so many people facing long-term lung problems due to COVID-19, the annual American Lung Association's Fight For Air Climb is taking on an even greater purpose.
Thousands of people are now dealing with lung damage because of COVID-19, including Janene Thibault.
"You never appreciate what it means to breathe air on your own until you can't," she said.
Thibault first noticed a slight cough on Christmas Eve 2020. A few days later, her oxygen levels started to plummet.
Thibault ended up in the hospital and tested positive for COVID-19. She was then hospitalized for a month.
"When you get it, you keep thinking you will get better," Thibault said. "And then when you don't, and you end up in the hospital with it, there's that fear that you're not going to get better. And you do live with that while you're there."
After a battle to get her oxygen levels back up, doctors allowed Thibault to go home to finish recovering.
"It was like the best day of my life. I couldn't believe it. And to actually walk into my house — which was not easy, by the way. There was a step I had to get up. It felt like heaven," Thibault said. "It just felt so good to be home. And I knew there was a lot of work to still do, but it made a big difference."
Now, more than a year later, Thibault is still dealing with some residual breathing problems because of the scarring on her lungs.
Dr. Andrwe Schlachter is a pulmonologist and critical care specialist at Saint Luke's Health System. He says there is still a lot of unknowns about the long-term effects of COVID-19.
"By all means, not every patient, thankfully, who suffers with infection or even moderate or severe disease is, by definition, going to be labeled a pulmonary cripple moving forward," Schlachter said. "We're dealing still with a world where there's a lot of unknown long-term issues in patients that have had COVID."
To help learn more about those long-term effects, more funding is needed. That's where the American Lung Association comes in.
"The mission has really expanded, bringing in COVID-19," said Linda Crider, executive director of the American Lung Association Kansas and Greater Kansas City. "We're funding research right now, that's a big part of what we're doing."
Part of that funding comes from the annual Fight For Air Climb. Participants raise money and climb steps to support the Lung Association's mission.
"You don't realize how important the research that they have done in the past means to you today," Thibault said.
That funding is not only for COVID-19. The Lung Association supports research of more than 50 lung diseases, from asthma to bronchitis to pneumonia.
It hit home for Sarah Woodard last year. She lost her dad, Eric, to lung cancer seven months after he was diagnosed.
"When he passed away, I wanted to be more involved with the Lung Association. So I looked up the event and found it and signed up immediately," Woodard said.
She received so much support she's now leading a team of climbers at this year's event.
"When people understand that we all kind of have a struggle to go through and that there is support out there in people that you don't know, we can come together and really help each other out," she said.
She also hopes to use the event to keep her dad's positive attitude alive.
"I think that that is what we'll do moving forward, is to celebrate him by helping out other people," Woodard said.
Thibault has never participated in the event before, but she's considering signing up this year and hopes other long-haulers will join her.
"Why not? Why not? I can do it," Thibault said. "I want to give people hope that you know, just keep trying, keep moving. Keep doing the best you can each day and work through it, and you can improve."
The 2022 Fight For Air Climb will take place June 11 at Children's Mercy Park. Registration is now open on the American Lung Association website.
For those who don't want to climb, there are also volunteer spots available for the event.