Fly Baby

126. That’s how many offer letters Callie Garner Thompson received to swim at the collegiate level. Long before that, at the age of five, she earned the nickname “Fly Baby,” learning to swim before she even knew how to read. Callie was born to swim—but you’d never guess that it was a near-fatal asthma attack that led her to dive in for the first time.

A yellow and purple banner reading “Jumpers Girls Swimming - Regional Champions - 2010 - Callie Garner - 50 Free”
“She owns just about every one of the female records but three,” said Callie’s mom, Kim.

One late October night when Callie was only four, her mother, Kim, woke up to her daughter making an unfamiliar sound.

“She never once wheezed,” said Kim. “She had the strangest cough and it was like she was choking. I woke my husband up and said, ‘I know you’re going to think I’m crazy, but I’m taking her to the emergency room.’”

Callie, wearing a brown and white floral dress, stands in the middle of her elementary school classroom. She is laughing and looking off-camera, and is holding a worksheet with a horse on it.
Callie brings her signature energy and enthusiasm to her job as a second grade teacher.

At her local hospital, Callie was misdiagnosed with early onset pneumonia. She was sent home to recover, but her cough continued to get worse.

“She was choking and her chest was just rising,” said Kim. “She was a very small child, and her chest was just seesawing up and down from all of the coughing.”

Callie smiles at one of her students. In the foreground, we see the back of a student’s head. He is raising his hand.
“As a teacher, I communicate with these kids about staying calm and controlling their body and their breathing,” said Callie.

The Garners knew they needed a second opinion, so Kim reached out to their family physician, who was adamant that Callie return to the ER to be airlifted to UK HealthCare’s Makenna David Pediatric Emergency Center in Lexington for treatment.

Callie crouches down to work with one of her students: a young girl with brown curly hair.
Callie teaches her students breathing exercises and self-awareness—something that's especially helpful for students with test anxiety.

When Callie arrived at Kentucky Children’s Hospital, a series of x-rays and evaluations confirmed that she was actually experiencing an extreme asthma attack. It took several different pediatric asthma medications before she started responding to treatment. She would stay in the hospital for a week, receiving round-the-clock care and monitoring until she recovered enough to go home.

Callie stands at the front desk of the aquatic center and smiles as a blonde woman with short hair and a dark hoodie holds her wrist.
After growing up in the swim community, Callie is now a coach at her local aquatic center.

“I remember my mother making the comment that nobody complained, everyone was just so happy,” said Kim. “They just wanted you, as a parent, to feel better, and they wanted to help your child.”

As the Garners got ready to leave, Dr. Jamshed Kanga, Chief of the Division of Pediatric Pulmonology and Callie’s doctor during her stay, prepped them on how to care for an asthmatic child. He offered a piece of advice that’s echoed in Kim’s mind ever since.

Dr. Jamshed Kanga, an older Indian man with short gray hair, glasses, and a mustache, talks with a patient in the extreme foreground of the photo. He is wearing a green collared shirt and has a stethoscope around his neck.
“Dr. Kanga was just so sensible and calming,” said Kim.

“He sat us down and said, ‘You have to let her live.’ That’s the one thing we see with parents walking away from here–they hold their children back. You’ve got to let her go and live a normal life,’ said Kim. “That was the greatest piece of advice that he gave us.”

An action shot of Callie swimming. She is wearing a dark swimsuit, goggles, and a black swim cap.
“[Dr. Kanga said] if she started swimming, it would be a good possibility that she could outgrow the asthma and beat it.” said Kim.
Photo courtesy of Steve Cornelius/Commonwealth Journal.

Dr. Kanga, who also had asthma as a child, told the Garners one more thing: get Callie into swimming, and do it soon. Swimming is one of the best exercises for people with asthma, building up the muscles we use for breathing. The warm, humid environment is also less likely to trigger asthma symptoms than other sports. Research suggests that swimming increases lung function and cardiopulmonary fitness, without posing any serious side effects in patients with stable asthma.

A photo of Callie swimming. She is wearing a dark suit, googles, and a yellow UNCW swim cap.
“When she went to college for swimming, she was on no medication,” said Kim.

Callie took to swimming like she was born for it, learning to listen to her body, control her breathing, and increase her strength and stamina—and her determination paid off. She swam with UK’s club team from seventh grade onward. She was selected as part of a group of Kentucky swimmers to train at the high-altitude Olympic training facility in Colorado. And she achieved her goal of swimming for a Division I school, eventually selecting UNC Wilmington from the more than 100 collegiate swim offers she received.

Callie stands in her classroom and looks down at her students, who are working at their desks.
“It's made me a more responsible, hardworking, goal-setting person,” said Callie.

“I’ve grown so much as a person from swimming,” said Callie, who now teaches second grade and coaches a local high school swim team. “I set so many goals for myself, and I still try to set goals in my life, and that’s something swimming taught me. From a young age, I told myself ‘I’m going to swim Division 1.’ That was my goal and I was able to work to that level. And now, I’m excited to give back to other swimmers.”

Callie stands next to a pool, smiling as she holds onto the handrail.
“I have many swimmers on my team with asthma, which makes me a good advocate for them,” said Callie.

As a coach, Callie advocates for swimmers with asthma, helping them learn how to listen to their bodies and pay attention to their breathing. The lessons she learned through swimming have rippled throughout her teaching, where she’s able to help students with anxiety, asthma and other medical conditions control their breathing.

Callie works at her desk. In the foreground we see a red and white inhaler sitting on a block that says “Best. Teacher. Ever.”
Callie still keeps an inhaler nearby for emergencies.

It’s been almost 26 years since Callie was first diagnosed with asthma, and today, advances in healthcare, resources and technology mean the outlook for asthmatics has never been better. Beyond traditional inhalers, Dr. Kanga said there are many new treatment options—things like genetically engineered proteins called biologics, which target specific substances in the immune system that cause inflammation.

Callie sits next to the pool, looking over the water and off-camera.
“It took years, but eventually she was weaned off the medications,” said Kim.

“Treatment for asthma has really come a long way, and at Kentucky Children’s Hospital, we have really great clinics,” added Dr. Kanga. “In pediatric pulmonology, we now have allergists and immunologists, in addition to pulmonologists, so we have a multi-specialty team that all works together.”

“It was a group effort, down to the custodial staff. Everybody there was concerned about every child.” said Kim. “They really did save her life that night. She would not have made it. And if I had stayed home with her, Callie wouldn’t be here today.”

Callie smiles at the camera while sitting at her desk.
“With asthma, injuries and stigmas, I learned to really listen to myself,” said Callie. “I know my body better than anybody else.”

See how we care for kids like Callie

at UK HealthCare’s Kentucky Children’s Hospital.

Matt Ward, an older white man with a mustache and shaved head, stands in front of his ambulance with his hands in his pockets. He is wearing a black suit jacket over a gray button-up, and a pair of tan slacks.A photo of Malakai Roberts standing in front of a flowering bush as he smiles and looks off camera. He is a young Black boy with short curly black hair. He is wearing a short-sleeve gray shirt that reads “I am the dream.”