I woke up with it. It felt like someone had their fingers in my lungs, pulling the fingers inwards, pulling and pulling and my lungs were trying to pull away from the fingers. My insides were fighting themselves. I’d felt it before, when I was a boy. As a kid, I got bronchitis constantly, every winter. Every winter, I would be in the bed, trying to breathe normally, trying not to panic, trying to get my body to slowly take in air like normal. It stopped in high school and then came back again a few years ago, bronchitis with a little touch of pneumonia. As a thirty-four year old man, heaped in the knowledge of my body, I knew this was different. This was in the spring. I felt perfect the day before, spent all day outside, spent all day in the air, spent all day walking around. But, the next morning, I could barely walk, barely move. I taught in front of my students and I could barely speak, could barely stand up long enough to write on the board. The next day I spent all day in bed and I could barely get out of bed, barely move. I tried to rest. That’s all I need, I thought. A solid day’s rest of laying around, not doing anything. I work too hard. My body is just making me rest. I just need to rest. But, close to nine that night, I knew I wasn’t going to sleep. I could hear nothing but a constant wheezing. Out and it sounded like wind blowing through paper. In and it sounded like wind blowing through a straw. My lungs was filled with needles. I sat on my bed, hearing my own lungs fight for each piece of air, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to fall asleep. Deep inside me, I was afraid of what would happen if I did fall asleep. Breathing was something I had to think about. Every. Breath. Was. An. Act. Damn it, I thought. Damn it. Damn it. Damn it. I was going to have to go to the hospital.
I don’t like hospitals because they cost money and people die there. There is never a happy moment to go to a hospital, unless someone had a baby. Other than that, you are there because someone’s body has failed them in some way. We are fragile creatures. It doesn’t take much for us to become completely inoperable. I’ve decided that I’m not going to die in one, in a hospital. When my time comes, I’m going to die in a field someone, with blue skies and the sound of nature. I’d also like to be shot to death by a firing squad, after unsuccessfully leading a revolution. I’m weird.
George Washington University Hospital was a place I’d been before, sort of. When I first moved to this area, before I worked weekends at the bookstore, I spent my weekends exploring. Every weekend, I would go to a spot on the Metro I’d never been before. I did this for months, bouncing around the city. I remember when I got off and saw the hospital. There was a reason why I picked that place then. Sitting in the Emergency room, I understood why. I’d need this place. The Lord is weird, too.
“Breathe in this,” the nurse said to me. It was a device that measured your lung capacity. I took a breath, blew out into it.
“You didn’t even make a hundred,” she said.
“What’s normal?” I asked, holding my hand to my chest.
“300 is normal,” she said. “You’re going to need some steroids.”
I didn’t care what they gave me. My breathing was getting worse. I wasn’t getting enough air in my body. I’d fell asleep on the train there, getting nudged awake by a kid heading to a party, bumping into me. Going up the stairs to the hospital was like climbing over the world.
“How are we?” A doctor asked. He touched my body, checked my pulse.
“Here,” he said, “Let’s try this first. We need to open your lungs up.”
A minute later I’m breathing in smoke coming out a tube, smoke that made me antsy. I was shaking.
“It’s the medicine,” the nurse said. “It does that.”
But I was feeling better. For the first time in two days, breathing felt like it was something my body wanted to do. God, I can’t describe it with the words the language gives me. I literally wanted to cry. I could spend the rest of my life there, breathing in that tube of white gas, if it meant I could finally breathe easily again. The doctor walked up to me, looked at my vitals, asked if I was feeling better and I gave in a thumbs up.
“Well,” he said. “Welcome to the wonderful world of Asthma.”
A long time ago, my grandmother took me to a local doctor and he told me I had “Mild Asthma”. I was a kid, so I barely remember all of it, but it was the reason why I was susceptible to bronchitis, why, when I ran, I was out of breath quicker than the other boys, why, when I laughed, it took me a minute to calm down. Looking back through my life, it makes more and more sense that my mild Asthma was probably full-on Asthma that I just ignored. I wasn’t going to claim it. I wasn’t some little weak guy with weak lungs. I could beat it. Just train myself and I’d get over it, out grow it. However, more than once, after riding my bike, I would get light-headed and have to sit or lay down for awhile. The summers were the worst, especially around allergy season.
“Allergies probably brought this on,” the doctor said.
“I’ve never had it before,” I told him. “Not like this, where I can’t even move.”
“Washington DC has horrible allergies,” the doctor said. “Worst than anywhere on the east coast.”
I’d just moved into the city two weeks before.
“Are you taking anything for your allergies?”
“Overworking, maybe stress, you got an asthma attack. Do you have a primary physician?”
“You’ll need one. You’ll need to get your allergies tested. Then you’ll need to start carrying an inhaler. We’ll give you some steroids tonight, put you on an IV. I want to get some x-rays of your lungs, too, make sure nothing is going on in there. Then, if you can breathe, we’ll give you some scripts for a week of steroids and an inhaler. But you’ll have to be careful, monitor it. No reason to move from the area. At least not yet.”
I’d move to DC to start having more of a life again, to enjoy living in a city and to be more social. An now this guy was telling me I’d have to carry a stupid inhaler around. And, of course, in my mind, I said hell no, I’m not carrying around some lame-ass inhaler. But three other doctors came to see me and each one said the same thing. I sat there with a realization that I was just as frail as everyone else and that I was going to have to deal with this, one way or there either. But I’ll be damned if I claim this asthma, I thought. I wasn’t going to let sickness claim me.
A few days later, I was on Clariton for the allergies and I was on the steroids and I had my inhaler in my pack. I was heading to the Metro and I could hear the train. Redline to Shady Grove. I hit my card, ran through the gate, ran down the escalator and ran through the door before it closed, barely, just barely. There it was again. The fingers, pulling my lungs in. I put my hands on my chest and breathed calmly, calmly. There was a knot in my throat, another sign, and I was cold, sweating. I closed my eyes and tried to wait it out. And, for some reason, I thought of my students. I’m not sure why. I thought, if one of my students were feeling how I felt, and had an inhaler, but didn’t want to take it, I would lecture them. I would fuss and tell them that they didn’t have to suffer unless they wanted to suffer. I reached in my pack, pulled out the inhaler, hit the nozzle twice and sucked in the sweet medicine. Seconds later, I was fine. My breathing was fine, the fingers letting go. It was that quick. One second, I couldn’t breathe. The next second, I could.
I thought about that the rest of the day. Did I have asthma? Or did I have the symptoms of asthma? If I told myself that I didn’t have asthma, that it was a rare thing and I’d have to be careful and that only sick people have it, that I was above asthma, if I did that, I knew myself. That would be a point where I wouldn’t have an inhaler and I’d need it. But I’d be too proud to have it. If I claimed it, took it, said to myself, listen, hey, you have to deal with this, then I would have the inhaler, this little red thing. All my life, I willed myself through. From school to jobs to moving, every time I told myself I could do it, I was going to do it, and through sheer stubbornness, I got what I wanted. I wasn’t going to be able to out-wait my body. My body didn’t care about any psycho-analytic, hippie approach. My body didn’t care about positive thinking. My body wanted to breathe. The red inhaler in my packed helped my body get what it wanted. I carry the inhaler everywhere. I don’t forget it and I used it this morning, in fact. And I’ll use it when I need it because, yes, I need it.
Before you think I’m an adult, picture this. I’m in my kitchen, with my roommates. We are talking about stuff, I can’t remember what, and then I remember something.
“Can you buy inhalers online?” I ask out loud.
“Probably,” one of my roommates say. My iPad finds them for me, there on the internet, for sale, inhalers. Yes. I’d rather do that than go to a doctor. Baby steps, my friends. Baby steps.
Update: I saw this on Wired.com and I thought some of you might find it interesting. I’m trying to steer away from promoting and just tossing links around, but when it is about the Coal industry, I think I’ll make an exception. You can take a look at it here.