Lynn Olla lost count of how many times she developed pneumonia, bronchitis, and sinusitis. Many of the infections resulted in hospitalizations for Olla, beginning in infancy. Even when illness didn’t require a visit to the hospital, simple colds lasted more than a month, and Olla lived with perpetual coughing and sinus drainage, tissues at the ready.
“All my life, I had people making fun of me and belittling me and saying, ‘Why can’t you stop coughing and sniffing?... And when I was working, I’d get five sinus infections in a typical year,” said Ola, 70, a retired elementary school teacher. “I finally said I’ve had enough. This isn’t normal. Something has to be done.”
At 55, Olla saw an allergist who did his best to treat her.
“He said, ‘I don’t understand. You’re not getting better, and I’m giving you double the dose of the medicine,’” said Olla. “Then he asked me, ‘Were you always sick as a child?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘Something’s not right.’”
The allergist referred Olla to an immunologist and, after ordering tests to measure her immunoglobulin levels, provided Olla with a proper diagnosis that explained her lifelong infections—common variable immune deficiency (CVID).
“And I said, ‘What the heck is that?’” said Olla. “I looked it up, and I became very careful around people, and I didn’t get sick because I took precautions.”
By decreasing her exposure to germs through vigorous handwashing and keeping her distance from sick children and adults, Olla reduced her infections. She also visited a salt spa which improved upper respiratory symptoms.
She retired from teaching at age 65 in 2018, and when the pandemic hit, she wore a mask, avoided large social gatherings, and received the COVID-19 vaccine. But even doing her best to keep safe, Olla caught COVID five times. Trips to healthcare facilities for treatment prevented symptoms from worsening, and she recovered each time, much to the relief of the nurses.
“One time, when I walked out, they stood up and started clapping,” recalled Olla.
Despite the CVID diagnosis and the cases of COVID, Olla still felt like a different kind of health problem plagued her because her sinusitis and coughing worsened and she had trouble swallowing. She visited several doctors who provided no answers to her poor health.
“I went to every single ENT [ear, nose, and throat specialist] and had every test in the world and they said, ‘There is nothing wrong with your nose,’ and I said, ‘But there is,’” said Olla. “And I said, ‘I’m not giving up.’”
A referral to a pulmonologist finally shed light on why Olla suffered from her symptoms. Olla had a hiatal hernia, in which the upper part of the stomach bulges into the diaphragm causing esophagus spasms and choking. Surgery repaired the hernia and Olla is feeling better.
“I’m on cloud nine. I’m ecstatic that we figured this out,” said Olla. “You have to be proactive with your health, and I want to share my story to help others understand that advocating for yourself is important. If I can help one person that has the same symptoms as me, that would mean the world to me.”