Natalie Grant Recalls Daughter Gracie’s Near-Fatal Asthma Attack: 'That Moment Changed Everything' (Exclusive)

“Gracie’s become her own health advocate. It’s been incredible seeing the transformation in her,” Natalie Grant tells PEOPLE

Gracie and Natalie Grant.
Gracie and Natalie Grant.

It was Christmas Eve 2015, and contemporary Christian singer Natalie Grant, along with her husband and three young daughters — and dozens of extended-family members — had gathered at her brother’s house in Seattle for a holiday celebration. In the midst of the festivities, Natalie’s daughter Gracie, then 8, mentioned that it was hurting her to breathe. She’d been diagnosed with asthma a few months earlier, but Natalie thought she seemed okay overall.

“Now, looking back,” says the nine-time Grammy nominee, “I can see how she was putting on this brave face. She just didn’t want to miss Christmas Eve.”

When Gracie’s symptoms persisted the next day, Natalie’s brother Steve, a doctor, and her niece Jenna, a nurse practitioner, recommended taking her to the ER — where Gracie was given medication and sent home. “And we were like, ‘Well, she must be okay,’ ” says Natalie.

<p><a href="" data-component="link" data-source="inlineLink" data-type="externalLink" data-ordinal="1">Diana King</a></p> Gracie and Natalie Grant.

Diana King

Gracie and Natalie Grant.

Two days later Natalie was at a Seattle Seahawks hockey game with her husband,­ Grammy-winning producer Bernie Herms, when she received a text from her niece: “I’m taking Gracie to Seattle Children’s Hospital. Her breathing is really bad.”

At the hospital “I remember about eight doctors came rushing in,” says Natalie, 52, “and I was like, ‘What is happening?!’ ” Gracie was diagnosed with pneumonia and a partially collapsed lung—both of which had triggered a serious asthma attack.

On a severity scale of 1 to 10, doctors rated Gracie at 11, in large part because her oxygen levels had dropped to an alarming 88 percent (normal levels range from 95 to 100 percent). When high doses of steroids failed to stabilize her breathing, Gracie was put in intensive care, where she stayed for the next five days.

“They just couldn’t get her breathing under control,” says Natalie.

<p>Courtesy Natalie Grant and Gracie Herms</p> Natalie Grant with daughter Gracie in the ICU.

Courtesy Natalie Grant and Gracie Herms

Natalie Grant with daughter Gracie in the ICU.

Within two weeks Gracie had fully recovered — and now, at age 17, she’s a thriving high school junior. But the traumatic experience was life-changing for both the teen and her parents, who hadn’t realized how deadly asthma can be if not managed properly.

“That moment changed everything,” says Natalie, sitting with Gracie in the study of their Nashville home. “You feel like a complete failure as a parent. I can’t stress this enough: Do the work to really learn about asthma and how to keep it under control from the beginning. Don’t wait until you have a crisis.”

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There are an estimated 25 million Americans with asthma, of whom 6.5 percent are children. The chronic respiratory disease causes inflammation in the lungs, leading to a narrowing of the small airways — and symptoms ranging from coughing and wheezing to shortness of breath and tightness in the chest. Common triggers include stress, food allergies, pet dander, cold weather and various environmental irritants such as pollen, among other things. While there’s no cure for asthma, new treatments and medications have made the disease a lot more manageable.

“In younger people most of the asthma is allergic asthma,” says Dr. Brian Christman, professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. “But these days our treatments have gotten so much better that we can get people under pretty good control.”

<p><a href="" data-component="link" data-source="inlineLink" data-type="externalLink" data-ordinal="1">Diana King</a></p> Gracie and Natalie Grant.

Diana King

Gracie and Natalie Grant.

That’s been the case for Gracie, who is diligent about taking her daily allergy medications and using a rescue inhaler at the first sign of an attack.

“I still have weak lungs, so whenever I have allergies or get sick, I can have a flare-up,” she says. “But for the most part, it’s super under control, and I’m blessed for that. I’ve learned to pay attention and to be aware of my own body,” she adds, “because you can have repercussions if you don’t.”

Says her mother: “That’s well-said. Our bodies are always talking to us. You just have to listen.”

Related: Olympic Swimmer Dara Torres on Her 30-Year Journey with Asthma: 'It's the Challenges That Motivate Me' (Exclusive)

Growing up in Seattle, Natalie had a passion for music that blossomed early. The youngest of five children born to Arnold Grant, 88, a real estate photographer, and Gloria, 84, a retired buyer for Nordstrom, she was raised in a strong Christian, musical family and sang at her local church.

During her junior year of college she auditioned for a contemporary Christian traveling musical group called Truth, then spent two years performing at various universities across the country.

“It was really then when I went, ‘This is what I’m meant to do,’ ” says Natalie, who was 26 when she moved to Nashville. In 1997 she signed with Benson Records, and in 1999 she released her first solo album, Natalie Grant. “I’ve been super blessed to do what I love to do,” she says. “But it wasn’t easy. It took a long time before things kind of all went my way.”

That same year, she married Bernie, whom she’d met in 1997 when she hired him to accompany her on the piano during a showcase for her record label. “Writing songs and creating music with the person I feel safest with brings out the best in me,” Natalie says of Bernie, now 52, who has collaborated with Barbra Streisand, Josh Groban and Selena Gomez, to name a few.

Natalie Grant performs in Nashville in 2020.
Natalie Grant performs in Nashville in 2020.

“We always say he’s the star of the family,” she adds with a smile.

Gracie and her twin sister, Isabella (Bella), were born in February 2007. (Daughter Sadie, now 13, arrived three years later.)

“Being a mom is the most rewarding thing in the world. There’s nothing better,” says Natalie, who by that time had released her acclaimed fourth album, Awaken, and won the first of four Dove Awards for Female Vocalist from the Gospel Music Association. By the age of 3, Gracie was taking dance lessons, and she was an active, healthy child.

“She never struggled with allergies. She was always so strong,” says Natalie. “The asthma literally came out of nowhere.”

Related: Dancer Constance Devernay Details Lifelong Struggle with Asthma: It 'Wasn’t Going to Stop Me' (Exclusive)

No one in Natalie’s immediate family had ever been diagnosed with asthma, so the singer-songwriter wasn’t looking for telltale symptoms when she picked Gracie up from a friend’s birthday party in August 2015. “It was a hot, humid day in Nashville, with plenty of allergens—and Gracie said, ‘It hurts to breathe,’ ” recalls Natalie, who assumed her daughter was just out of breath from the heat and playing with her friends. But several hours later, after noticing that Gracie’s lips had turned blue and her skin was “kind of gray,” an alarmed Natalie and Bernie rushed her to the ER—where doctors diagnosed Gracie with asthma. They treated her with steroids, then gave her an inhaler and a nebulizer and sent her home. “And she was fine,” says Natalie.

“But we just didn’t know enough about it. We didn’t educate ourselves. And that’s how we wound up in such a serious place in the ICU for several days.”

<p>Courtesy Natalie Grant and Gracie Herms</p> Natalie and Gracie Grant in Washington, D.C.

Courtesy Natalie Grant and Gracie Herms

Natalie and Gracie Grant in Washington, D.C.

Now, in hindsight, Natalie can see the multiple warning signs and triggers leading up to Gracie’s near-fatal attack that day in December 2015: Her brother’s two dogs and the various fragrances and candles everywhere all contributed. “I remember a lot of it,” Gracie says of being in the ICU. “My mom would go down and switch with my dad in the car, and just those five minutes being in that room by myself, I was like, ‘What’s going to happen to me?’ It was really scary.”

Back home, Natalie and Bernie put together a strict plan to monitor Gracie’s condition and make sure she was taking her allergy medications daily. “It wasn’t optional; it was imperative,” says Natalie. They also began tracking potential triggers and watching for signs of possible flare-ups. A small device called a peak flow meter helped gauge Gracie’s breathing capacity; the slightest cough or wheeze meant immediate treatment with a nebulizer. (“We went through so many of those nebulizers,” says Natalie.) If Gracie went to a friend’s house for a sleepover and they had a dog, “we’d go and get her so she could sleep at home,” recalls Natalie. “When she’d go to summer camp, we made sure everyone was hyperaware of her asthma, especially if it was going to be humid or hot that day.” Just as important was teaching Gracie to be her own best advocate — “teaching her how to speak up and speak up loud,” says Natalie.

<p>Histown Dance</p> Gracie Grant takes a dance class in Tennessee in May 2024.

Histown Dance

Gracie Grant takes a dance class in Tennessee in May 2024.

It’s a lesson Gracie has taken to heart — and as a result she’s grown into a healthy, active teenager. Her childhood asthma attack has inspired plans to study medicine, and she hopes to one day become a doctor or nurse. “My whole journey has motivated me to want to help other people,” says Gracie, who’s also an avid hip-hop dancer. “I love it so much. Sometimes on days when I’m dancing non-stop, I’ll bring my inhaler with me, but I ­haven’t really struggled with it.” With both Gracie and Bella just a little over a year away from their high school graduation, Natalie is cutting back on her touring schedule for a while. (Last year she performed some 130 shows around the country.)

“These are important years, and I don’t want to be away from them so much,” says Natalie, who’s also a longtime global ambassador for Hope for Justice, a charity that’s helped more than 200,000 sex-trafficking survivors. “I’ve learned there’s no such thing as balancing or managing it all,” she adds. “When my husband and I decided to have kids, we agreed that our family would be our priority. And everything else kind of comes after that.”

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