Growing Up Breathless
After conversing with an old friend last evening, and explaining about my illness, my transplant, and my journey since that life-saving event; I was pondering what it meant to grow up nearly always short of breath, and how that translates into surviving my current situation.
I was five years old when my life-long nemesis, bronchial asthma, first made its presence felt. On vacation with my family at the shore of Lake Erie, my first severe reaction to ragweed (probably goldenrod) triggered my first overt asthma attack -- requiring medical intervention. My parents, already overprotective because of an accident at age 18 months that left my feet and hands severely damaged, were stunned by this latest development.
Stand Up Drowning
I remember that attack, which happened when I retired for the night, after a full day of splashing about in the water and reading all the magazines in the rented cottage. It felt like my lungs were filling up with water and I was trying to breathe that water. The air seemed to have the consistency of a liquid and I was drowning while sitting on the edge of my bed. Later, when I was beside my parents’ bed and pulling on their sheets to wake them up, I could barely get any sounds out of my throat, other than a terrible, whistling wheeze. I felt helpless and afraid.
Smoke and Mirrors
In 1955, there were few asthma treatments that provided immediate and measurable relief. One of the most interesting was breathing deeply the smoke and vapors from burning belladonna (aka deadly nightshade), which my mom or dad set on fire in an ashtray. It smelled terrible, and the fumes burned my throat and stung my eyes. Yet, the cloud of vile vapors also numbed and relaxed the bronchial tubes, allowing some air to pass -- replacing the terror of anoxia with a sore throat and a nasty odor in my nose. It was as close to the now debunked treatment of asthma with “asthma cigarettes” as we ever came.
Inhaled corticosteroids were available if hospitalized, but that was emergency treatment. I had no inhaler in my pocket. Therefore, I experimented with whatever made me feel better. I found that beating on my chest sometimes helped open the airways. Vick’s Vaporub sometimes helped. Early on, I found that sipping hot tea and later, coffee was very effective at soothing an attack.
During these years, I learned a great deal about the psychosomatic nature of asthma attacks and began meditating and practicing a childish form of deep relaxation I called “floating.” I centered my thoughts on an image of myself in an imaginary mirror, noticing how every move and gesture appeared backwards -- as if I stepped outside my body into the image in the mirror, which could float and move about with no effort and, of course, no shortage of breath. Images felt no pain.
I still use a version of that imagery to help control pain.
Sometime later, over-the-counter medications containing ephedrine (and usually, guaifenesin -- an expectorant) helped control the one-two punch of hay fever and bronchial asthma. There was, of course, a trade-off. Use of medicines like BronchAid and Primatene came with side-effects like sleeplessness and hours of shaking and quaking. Frequent use also lead to tolerance and reduced effectiveness.
What finally helped the most was moving in 1967 from the Detroit metro area to Dollar Bay in the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The cleaner air and abundant oxygen made breathing a pure joy for the first time in my life. I learned to push my limits and improved my stamina, but also took care not to push it so far I triggered an attack.
The Silver Lining
For many years, I identified with a cartoon character named Joe Btfsplk from the Li’l Abner strip. A small, dark rain cloud perpetually hovered over his head to symbolize his bad luck. Every time I tried something new, there was my personal rain cloud, my asthma, teaching me my limitations. In 1997, I decided that enough was enough and signed up to act, sing, and dance in the Calumet Players production of South Pacific. Shortly after that, I auditioned for the chorus in a Pine Mountain Music Festival opera -- the geezer and the wheezer was singing tenor 1 in an opera chorus. These wonderful challenges were central to my life until my diagnosis in 2010.
All those years of fighting for enough air to function taught me how to breathe and gave me an accurate sense of my oxygen levels in my bloodstream. I could do a creditable job by simply remembering my lines, my blocking, the lyrics, and the music -- while navigating around “breath bombs” -- mistakes that would leave me gasping and dizzy.
Now that I must function with 27% lung capacity, those skills are instrumental in making life without an oxygen tank possible. I can no longer sing (except in very short bursts) and all my dancing is done with my eyes, yet I get around without hardware and breathing support. There was a silver lining in my personal rain cloud after all!
I realize now that all those challenges over all those years prepared me to confront and conquer an even bigger challenge.
BTW, I love that today is day 1234 since transplant. I just think it's cool, that's all.
Good night and God bless,