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Asthma Start coordinator Amy Sholinbeck inspects the Aldebashi family home for triggers, such as mold, that set of their daughter's asthma in Berkeley, Calif., Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. (Alison Yin/For Bay Area News Group)

If stuffed animals had brains, they would tremble at the sound of her voice. Dust mites in the carpet would shudder inside their exoskeletons.

Officially, Amy Sholinbeck is a case worker with the Alameda County Public Health Department's Asthma Start program. But really, she's a sleuth. Each day, she pokes around the darkest corners of strangers' homes, investigating ceiling tiles, cleaning products, closets, rugs and ventilation systems -- anything that might be irritating the lungs of an asthmatic child.

Sholinbeck's voice is reminiscent of a lovable cartoon character. Her manner is by turns self-deprecating and direct. Both suit her perfectly for the sensitive and necessarily intrusive role she plays in the fight against asthma.

"I don't want you to get nervous about it. Just be aware of it," she told Esmahin Aldebashi, the mother of Ayah, an asthmatic 2-year-old, after running through a list of alternatives to kitchen cleaners.

Asthma attacks usually are triggered by something in the air (and sometimes by cold air). The trouble is that the culprits are different for everyone, and there are almost too many to count. A few of the usual suspects: dust mites, mold, diesel particles, cat dander, chilly air, household bleach, scented candles and the flu.

Sholinbeck eyed a pile of stuffed animals on the floor of the little girl's bedroom. The good news: She'd let them live. The bad: They were headed for the washing machine -- or the freezer. Stuffed animals, like carpet, tend to harbor dust mites, a common source of asthma misery.

Next up: the bathroom. No windows, and the fan was broken -- a code violation. A telltale lump on the ceiling didn't escape her attention, either. Mold in the last apartment had become a prime suspect in Ayah's asthma. Now, Sholinbeck feared, it could be creeping into the family's new home.

After the tour, mother and detective sat down on the couch near the open front door. It was time for the checklist: Smoking? No. Sweeping while the child is around? Not anymore. Incense? Sigh.

Ayah's parents don't like where they live, along a wide, high-traffic road on the Oakland-Berkeley border. But with the rents as high as they are in the Bay Area, Aldebashi said, the family had little choice.

Sholinbeck often finds herself walking a thin line between what the families need to control their child's asthma and what they are able to do. Sometimes that means phoning the landlord with a request -- friendly, at first -- to fix a broken ceiling fan or remove mold. If that doesn't work, she might turn to code enforcement officers, who have more convincing measures at their disposal.

Of course, she's more than just a sleuth. She promotes better school attendance by arranging meetings between nervous parents, teachers and principals. She makes sure that families understand the difference between quick-acting and long-term medications and how to use a "spacer" with their inhalers to deliver more medicine. If they've lost their health insurance, she points them to community health clinics.

For Sholinbeck, it's personal. She, too, has the disease.

"Most children should be able to run and play and lead a normal, healthy life," she said. "They should not have asthma holding them back in any way."

Staff writer Katy Murphy and photographer Alison Yin produced this project while participating in The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Journalism.