When David Chumley, 63, struggled to climb the 40 flights of stairs of St. Louis’ tallest building on Saturday, he would reach down and pat the Hacky Sack in his pocket. His athletic son was deft at juggling the footbag.
“It’s kind of like I’m taking him to the top with me,” said Chumley, of Belleville, whose 15-year-old son died in 1995 after an asthma attack.
Chumley joined more than 1,200 others in the eighth-annual Fight for Air Climb at the Metropolitan Square building downtown, raising about $300,000 for the American Lung Association in Missouri. Almost 90 cents of every dollar funds local education, research and advocacy efforts to improve lung health. To date, the event has raised $2.5 million.
“I don’t want anyone to have to go through what me and my wife, Claudia, went through that night,” Chumley said.
Also announced at Saturday’s stair climb was a $2 million grant from the United Health Foundation to support a project targeting high-risk children with asthma in 90 clinics across the Midwest, including six in the St. Louis area.
“David’s story is the reason why we are all here today,” said George Durko, vice president of sales for insurer UnitedHealthcare, which established the nonprofit foundation.
The project includes outreach efforts to identify and refer children with poorly managed asthma. A program will help clinics follow guidelines proven to improve heath outcomes for children with asthma, such as working with families to remove environmental triggers, make sure children are taking medication properly and have action plans in case of emergencies at home or school.
Chumley and his wife adopted their son, Joseph Michael, when he was a baby. Despite several allergies that exacerbated his asthma, Joseph Michael played football and basketball and loved in-line skating. The teen had an asthma attack while visiting a relative’s home, which had basement allergens the family didn’t know about. Chumley said the last thing his son said was, “Mommy, I can’t breathe.” Paramedics and hospital staff were unable to save him.
“People don’t realize that asthma can be fatal,” Chumley said.
Others who climbed the 856 steps on Saturday included those who have been touched by lung cancer or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Five large banners hung in the lobby of Metropolitan Square titled “Why I Climb.” The banners were filled with hand-written notes for Mom, Dad and Grandpa; for a 1-year-old who got a lung transplant as an infant and is doing well; and for the grandma one never got to meet.
Koryssa Clymer, 24, of Hillsboro, was climbing for the second time after quitting smoking two years ago. She became addicted to cigarettes and alcohol as a teenager. By the time she got to college, she was a chain smoker and binge drinker, addicted both physically and mentally. Clymer was constantly sick and unable to exercise.
“I could not have climbed up 10 flights of stairs before,” she said. She was able to get well after enrolling in a recovery program at a nearby church and enlisting a strong support group to hold her accountable.
Despite feeling like needles were poking her lungs and her legs had turned into noodles, Clymer kept climbing all the way to the top of the Met. Much like in her struggle to beat her addictions, she pushed through when she thought she couldn’t do it.
“It’s testimonial to my whole recovery,” she said. “It gives me a sense of pride about what I can do.”