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  • Writer's pictureValley Clean Air Now

First Person: An asthma attack gave me a mission: Provide people in the Mon Valley with the tools to survive.

By Qiyam Ansari

This article was originally published in Public Source March 15, 2024, LINK

I first heard of Pittsburgh in 2010 when my mother told us we were moving there.

I looked it up on Google and saw it was a 13-hour trip with six people from our home in New Haven, Connecticut. All of 14 years old at the time, I thought: this will be rough. 

When I went on Google to search for Pittsburgh, all I saw was the steel industry and the Steelers. On the way there, I remember seeing all the farms in Pennsylvania for the first time, and I thought we were moving to the country. I was so happy when I started seeing houses again. 

As I got to know the area, I was in complete awe of how massive the old mills were and how many train lines crisscrossed the neighborhoods. When I first went Downtown, I thought Pittsburgh was the most beautiful city I had ever seen. The bridges, the water, the mountains, and the valleys inspired me. 

Qiyam Ansari at 16 in his high school counselor’s office during a 2013 “Dress for Success” event at Propel Braddock Hills High School. (Photo courtesy of Qiyam Ansari)

Until the morning of the air inversion that completely redirected my life,

we lived in East McKeesport. I was enrolled at Propel Braddock Hills High School. I wasn’t aware of U.S. Steel until John Fetterman, then the mayor of Braddock, had a community project in Braddock during high school. I later learned that they were responsible for the rotten egg smell that would often cause kids on my bus to say, “Who farted,” every time we drove by the mill on our way home. 

During my time there, I was a reasonably productive kid; I was an honor roll student, acted in a musical, was captain of my Ultimate Frisbee team, was a peer mediator, did Americorps, won prom king and tried my best to be a productive member of society.


I did all that despite asthma, which was well-managed until my junior year.

Fright Night prep became a real nightmare.

A week before Kennywood opened for Fright Night, I woke up to a typical fall day until my mom suddenly announced we were moving again, a few miles away to McKeesport. 

Moving was unexpected news for me at 7 a.m. I started packing the house because we only had one day to prepare.

I ran to my room and began to pack as any frantic teenage boy would; I threw everything into black trash bags and random boxes without labeling. As the day drew on, a temperature inversion brought a classic Pittsburgh mix of rain, hail and snow, all within 12 hours.  As I learned later, this inversion trapped polluted air close to the ground and created a potentially deadly environment, which I felt with labored breathing as my airways began to constrict.

 Ansari passed the U.S. Steel Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock on his way home from school, photographed here in January 2023. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

Being a prideful idiot, I did not mention these symptoms to my mother, who only noticed when I could no longer hold in my strained coughs and wheezing. Being a very active kid, I had confidence in pushing my body. I had played entire games of Ultimate Frisbee without inhalers, so I thought I knew my limits. What I did not consider was that the toxic particles were so highly concentrated in the air that they were killing me and intensifying the asthma attack.


The next day, my life changed forever when, at 7 a.m., my lungs collapsed. I was still gasping and taking my inhaler, but my lungs were not responding until suddenly, I couldn’t inhale any air! I drifted in and out of consciousness until my brother found me and called the ambulance. 

We were six minutes away from UPMC McKeesport Hospital, but by the time I arrived, my heart had stopped, and I had to be resuscitated at the hospital. Hospital staff then put me in a helicopter for a flight to Children’s Hospital in Lawrenceville, where I was sent to ICU. 

When I regained consciousness, I was in a hospital room filled with about 30 doctors. Everyone looked frantic, and then they kicked my mother out of the room so more doctors could come in. One doctor attempted to stick a pill up my anus, which I quarreled with all my strength, prompting the medical staff to put me into a coma as my body was not responding to any medication. Everything suddenly went very dark.

Died again and born again

I felt this immense feeling of peace and then terror when I couldn’t feel my body anymore. I was doing my best to grab or maneuver my way around, but I had no sensation of body, just my mind.

My mother sang, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when the skies are gray.” Suddenly, I was looking at my mother holding my hand beside the bed and at myself in the hospital bed, all sickly with tubes coming out of my nose and IVs everywhere. I thought, “God damn it, now I’m dead, I’ll never be able to go to Kennywood.”

Qiyam Ansari at 16 while in a medically induced coma in October of 2011, at the UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh in Lawrenceville. (Photo courtesy of Qiyam Ansari)

Then I heard a voice speak to me, and it sounded like the entire universe was talking to me. It said, “Don’t worry, I’ll show you why.” Suddenly, I was another person, born in an indigenous land in South America. I was a tribal leader fighting against invaders. I had a family, a tribe, a whole other identity, and I lived his life and died. I was then born again, and failed again, and born again, and died again, and born again, and died again. I finally remembered and screamed, “What am I doing here?” The voice said, “You failed but will not fall again this time.” 

I woke up in my hospital bed. I called the nurse into my room and asked how long I had been gone. She looked at me and said, “Two weeks.” 

This experience shook me to my core and forced me to question my identity, my purpose, and my path. I did my best to graduate high school and go to college, but the encounter weighed on my spirit. I met a mentor who told me I should go out and start trying to solve problems, so I did. 

The more I looked, the more problems I found: food apartheid, gentrification, disinvestment, redlining, government corruption, political nepotism, toxic air, toxic water and toxic food. Our world was a mess. I came across a request for proposals to help do strategic planning with two community groups from the Mon Valley focused on air pollution, and I felt this tug on my spirit that said to apply.

Qiyam Ansari, of West Mifflin, stands for a portrait in front of U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works on Feb. 27, in Clairton. Ansari joined Valley Clean Air Now, an air quality advocacy group based out of Clairton, around the time when fires at the U.S. Steel facility impacted the health of the surrounding community. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

‘My son is breathing better now.’

In 2018, Clean Water Action and Clean Air Council supported two community groups concerned about air quality. Everyone was frustrated because they were sick and suffering from this pollution and felt it was their duty to help and warn their neighbors of the issues before it was too late. During our planning meetings, we decided on a group named Valley Clean Air Now. 

This was right about the time of the Clairton Coke Works fire. We were angry that we were not notified for weeks, and many residents couldn’t shelter in place because, without an air purifier, the pollution builds up in your home. 

Since then, we’ve distributed 401 air purifiers to 389 households in the Mon Valley, participated in civil society, and educated residents about the dangers of our air. Brianna from Liberty Borough told me, “My two Levoit air filters work great.  …  My son is breathing better now.”

Ansari organizes air purifiers to give away to Clairton residents and organizations in the Valley Clean Air Now offices, on Feb. 1, in Clairton. The waiting list for the VCAN air purifier program has surpassed 100 citizens. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

When I speak to the residents we have been able to help, it fills my spirit with a sense of joy that they can find some comfort.  

The money needed to deliver this program to 10% of the Mon Valley is $8 million — far more than we can raise. 

When we educate residents and tell them about the high rates of asthma and cancer, they get angry. They fight, our regulators don’t listen, and they move away. We are losing our community through death, dispersion and degradation.

From left, Germaine Gooden-Patterson, John Perryman, Art Thomas, Qiyam Ansari and Fred Bickerton gather for a board meeting of Valley Clean Air Now on Feb. 1, in Clairton. The organization is running out of money to continue its air filter distribution program. Members are waiting to hear if the program will receive a share of the recent U.S. Steel settlement. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

I hope I’m making the best use of my gift of a second chance. I want to give our families a chance at life and arm them with the knowledge and tools to protect themselves. I learned that I can’t do that alone. We will need others who are brave enough to spend some time or money to make things change. If we dare to dream, we can be the change we want to see in this world. 

I see the beauty and the strength of this land and its people, and I have faith that we can make our Mon Valley work for us.

Qiyam Ansari is the board chair of Valley Clean Air Now and can be reached at 3-20-24 Tom Bailey Secretary

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