I began writing this story several days ago. My lung story is one of a near death experience, or rather the closest to death I had ever been; so therefore I choose to not reflect on it too often. It was when I was a new mother and sober. It is a story that is one of the most difficult for me to relive. It was also something that was random, not of my own doing, and therefore causes me to feel vulnerable. The story of my lung is an ongoing one, and every time I take that breath, be it a shortened breath of an anxious moment or a cherished breath on a long run, I am reminded of it. Certain subjects serve as a clarifying point, a long deep breath in the many ongoing threads of my life. This is one of those subjects.
I stood clutching my chest as I awoke in the northern California late September sun. Something felt strange. I hear a rumbling in my chest. I placed my then two year-old son, Elijah, in a high chair. I stood at the stove in our small, moldy California rental that was set high up on a hill over the Pacific Ocean, adjacent to the Redwood Forest. It was about the farthest I could be from any home that I had previously known and until that feeling from that morning, I usually felt exhilarated. I had an unintentional slouch in my back as I prepared breakfast, so I hesitantly called a doctor that I found in the phone book. As I waited on the phone to make an appointment, the pain grew deeper. It was pulsing within my chest and down my back and arm. I slowly spoke to the receptionist, her words exacerbating the pain. I then asked instead where the nearest hospital in this rural California town of three thousand people was. I awoke my son’s father who was suffering the most severe depressive episode yet. He told me to try to lay down, thinking that perhaps I was being dramatic, letting fear or anxiety get the better of me. I lied down and felt air in my chest, bubbling air. It felt as though my chest was caving in, collapsing.
We drove to the hospital. It was the size of an average house in Connecticut. The town was considered a haven for transients and was a mecca for marijuana growers. My baby and his father waited in the car and I entered the hospital. I was in more pain at that moment than I have ever felt. A hardened nurse greeted me. She doubted the extent of my pain. As she methodically asked me questions, there was not an ounce of emotion behind her eyes. After a few moments, I stood up and started screaming, pleading with her to help me. Finally they brought me back. I grew up in a heavily populated part of the country, and this hospital was unlike any other I had seen before. They had two doctors, one nurse, and five beds with curtains separating each of them. Finally, after an hour had past, a stethoscope was put to my back. An intern tapped the end and told the doctor: “This thing isn't working.” The doctor clarified and said: “No, that would mean there is no breathing sounds on the left side." I thought then that I was going to die. They quickly took an overhead X-ray, and the aura of a developing emergency filled the room. They walked me out to the bathroom and left me to walk back to the room on my own. I stumbled in the hallway, falling to the corner of the hospital floor. My face pressed against the hard, cold tile; tears streamed down my face, and drool from sheer agony seeped out the corner of my mouth. I heard voices: “who is this girl? Is there an emergency contact? Blood clot, collapse, emergency.” I heard the doctor yelling: "Go get the girl, she is going to die." They scooped me up off the floor and lay me down in the bed. I vaguely remember seeing the X-ray taped to the bright light. There was one full lung on the screen. The other one was the size of a raisin. Just then, my son and his father walked into the hospital. It had been nearly two hours, and the baby needed lunch. They were forcing me down, physically holding me down on the gurney. This action caused me a great deal of pain. When your lung collapses there is air pressure; literally your lung is like a balloon letting out air. While they were putting an oxygen mask on my face, I saw my son out of the corner of my eye. I screamed with terror: “I don't want to die! My baby, my baby I don't want to die!" Pleading between sobs and pain, I grasped the doctor’s sleeve. “Please don't let me die. Please, my baby..."
I then heard my son Elijah, and saw the look of horror on his father’s face. Elijah opened his arms towards me. “Mommy, Mommy!” He cried harder. A nurse and other personnel rushed at Elijah and his father, and escorted them out. Then the doctor said to me: “If you don't want to die, you are going to have to lay real still.” As he said this, he took out a tube and a hammer.
The curtain was drawn as they began to hold me firmly against the bed. The side of my cheek lay in a pool of tears. They called for something to calm me down, and told me to try to relax and keep breathing. I started to fade out, shut down. I was not sure if I was dying. The doctor then hammered what looked like a large clear tube into the side of my chest. I was fully conscious. He inserted it up into my lung and explained: “We are going to put a balloon type apparatus at the end of this tube and blow your lung back up. This tube will stay in for 10 days.”
After an hour of so, I felt the pain at last subside. I felt the narcotics that they were feeding me one after another slowly take hold. Then I was sent home. They sent me home with the equivalent of a garden hose stuck into the side of my chest and I was told to not smoke and not to lay on my left side. I was certain then that the only people that didn’t leave this hospital were the ones that died there.
I was given large quantities of Vicodin. Being a former addict, I knew that I could still function relatively well while under the influence of this opiate painkiller. As instructed, I stopped in the hospital every few days. They checked the hose/tube and gave me a shot of morphine, if I needed it. They assured me this was a fluke thing, and that no one’s lung ever collapses twice, or rather that it was very rare. “Less than ten percent chance,” they said.
Within a week I came across the same nurse who initially saw me that morning. As I stood in front of her for the second time, she pushed herself away from her desk and closed the pane of Plexiglas that separated us. She then came out into the hall and stood looking at me. Her eyes filled with tears and she said: “I am so sorry. I am so sorry I did not believe that you were in trouble.” She went on: “It's just that we see so much here and I ..." I stopped her, I told her that it was okay, but that I was still in so much pain they needed to give me something. I told her that I wanted to go home. Tears came down her face and she hugged me. She apologized again. I was surprised. I comforted her as she led me to the back for another shot of morphine.
Eleven days later I found myself in that rare ten percent and, my lung collapsed again...