Six years ago, I thought I was having the worst asthma attack of my teenage years.
Bending down to move something in the safe of the retail store I worked in, all the air filling my lungs came rushing out as if a balloon burst inside me. Logically, I soon made my way, struggling for air, to my locker, where I fished my rarely-used emergency inhaler from my purse. Anticipating the relief that usually came within minutes, I returned to work, albeit moving more slowly than usual for lack of oxygen. My heartbeat pounded in my ears as I crouched down to catch my breath right inside the office door, not noticing the other employees and managers enjoying the last few moments of freedom before the store opened for the day.
“Are you okay, Miss Katherine?” my favorite manager asked, worry lining her already life-lined face.
“Just. Asthma,” I forced out, doing my best to sound less breathless than I was as I unfolded myself back off the ground to stand up. “I’m waiting for my inhaler to kick in.”
Asthma and lung problems were nothing new to me. They framed my mornings and evenings with multiple puffs inhaled and breaths slowly exhaled, awaiting the inevitable relief of release that arrives when one can finally breathe without fatigue, without thinking about it. Thanks to the medications, it had been years since I’d had any horrible asthma flares, but it was also possibly thanks to the medications that I found myself, not even a year before, diagnosed with adrenal insufficiency, something I hadn’t yet learned to manage fully.
“Maybe I need more steroids,” I wondered, slowly making my way from the printer to my locker again, picking through the pills in my purse until my fingers grasped the little white pill that had given me my life back. “The asthma attack must’ve just stressed my body out too much, and it can’t handle it,” I assumed. “Surely I’ll feel better soon now.”
But “soon” slowly ticked by into hours of walking slowly, aching horribly, and hearing my pulse beating quickly in my ears. Bending over made me feel as if the wind had gotten knocked out of me, and all I had the energy to want to do was sleep.
So I slept, and while I slept, the Divine worked inside my mind, prompting me to research my symptoms when I finally roused. I listened to and obeyed the voice in my ear to “Google it. Symptoms of a collapsed lung.”
The shooting ache in my shoulder, the quickness of my heart, the empty feeling in my chest, the laborious breathing: a spontaneous pneumothorax.
“If you have a collapsed lung, there are decreased breath sounds or no breath sounds on the affected side…”PennMedicine.org
“Stethoscope,” I wondered. “Does Dad still have his stethoscope?”
Out of my cozy cocoon of blankets I pulled myself, not realizing at the moment that it would be my last time in the comfort of my own bed for over a week, and it would never be as comfortable again as it was that morning when I left for work before the sun had greeted the sky. I stepped up the stairs, finding my parents sitting together on the living room couch.
“Do you still have your stethoscope?” I asked my father, not telling him why.
He did, so he went down the hall to find it. When he returned, I asked him to listen to my lungs. I breathed in and out as deeply as possible, waiting for him to finish listening.
“You sound fine and clear on your right side,” he said, “But I don’t really hear anything on the left side.”
“I believe I need to go to the hospital,” I replied. “I have a collapsed lung.”
The following minutes and hours have melded together. I remember removing the nail polish from my recently painted ring fingernails to see if I was getting enough oxygen.
“They’re not blue, so I’m eating dinner. Who knows when I’ll get back from the hospital and if they’ll let me eat.”
So I ate, gathered some things, like a book I don’t believe I read, and we got in the car. Upon checking in at the hospital, they didn’t seem to be in a rush.
“What are you coming in for today?” the lady behind the glass asked.
“I believe I have a collapsed lung,” I fairly giggled from the absurdity of it all.
“Uh-huh. Symptoms? How long has it been?”
The thought that it was ten hours since the onset of symptoms seemed to make them even more skeptical. We sat in the waiting room chairs, but it was impossible to get comfortable. We watched them take back someone who got there just moments before I did, who was there for a sprained ankle. We waited.
When they finally came to get me for triage, they began asking the same questions. I gave them the same answers. Slowly, they check items off the list of things they do for all patients. Check their blood pressure. Check their blood oxygen level. Check their pulse.
The first glimpse of concern finally crosses the nurse’s face. “Oh my, your heart rate is up there, isn’t it?” She placed her stethoscope into her ears, the other end to my chest.
The world around me takes off like a bullet from a gun. Within moments, more ears listen to my lungs. An x-ray is getting ready to be taken; the results are surprising to them, unsurprising to me.
My lung had collapsed.
The surgeon on call wasn’t pleased to have his evening ruined by a nineteen-year-old girl who had the audacity to wait until after dinnertime to realize her breathing problems weren’t normal. I paced around my operating room for what felt like hours, unsure of what to do. Sitting was uncomfortable, and standing wasn’t much better. Pacing slowly gave me a little relief, as did messaging a friend to tell him what was going on and asking for prayer.
“So, I know we haven’t talked today, but I wanted to let you know I’m in the hospital with a collapsed lung, and I’d appreciate prayers,” I told him.
“I’ll pray,” he said before promptly falling asleep early for the last time in six years. (I should know because we’ve been married for four and a half years. I think he’s scared to fall asleep too early now.)
The surgeon seemed to take his frustration out by hacking away at the skin between two ribs directly under my armpit and shoving in tubes as far as they could go. I only recall him saying: “We had to use a Christmas tree. You’re child-sized but need adapted to adult size.”
This “Christmas tree” is what connected the smaller tube that now rattled inside my chest, aching as it hit the walls of my lung cavity, to the bigger tube outside of my skin that went into a fluid collecting box, which also hooked up to the wall and connected to “suction,” to suck the air that didn’t belong in my lung cavity out.
- I don’t remember going to my room.
- I don’t know how I got there.
- I just remember being in more pain than I was when the lung had simply collapsed and longing to sleep until everything was better.
It was the first time I’d spent the night in a hospital since I was six. I didn’t sleep much that night, either, but I remembered being comforted by the fact that I could hear my mother breathing.
This time, she couldn’t stay. She was recovering from her own health crisis. I told her I’d be fine.
And I suppose I was.
And I suppose I’ve recovered now.
But the manager who cared so much for me at work that day has since passed, attached to the ventilator she was terrified of because her own lungs gave out.
The church family who filled my hospital room to the brim during the long week I stayed in the local hospital have vanished, removed like half of my lung would be a month later—breaking ribs and leaving scars in their wake.
And that first scar, inflicted by a surgeon who didn’t care what he was doing to a nineteen-year-old’s body, has slowly shrunk, no longer looking quite like the spider it once did, but more like the jagged first scar of many, tucked under my arm for safe-keeping, away from the world that keeps spinning while lungs rhythmically expand and contract without a thought.