A Taste of TerrorI believe that everyone has tested themselves by holding their breath as long as possible — to see how long they can endure. If you have tried this, you know that silent imperative, the sudden mind-shout that says: "Enough, breathe already!" You gasp for air and feel that freshness rush into your lungs, just in time to stop the little ache in your muscles and buzzing in your ears that threatens worse to come.
For most of you, perhaps the fortunate ones, that only sample the taste of the terror which lives beyond the body's initial demand for oxygen, this is your only experience down that path. A few have pushed it further, and an unfortunate few have been dragged further down that path by circumstances such as drowning, choking, or blocked air passages. Some few have also seen the terrible shade of blue on your own skin that signals cyanosis, a bluish discoloration of the skin resulting from poor circulation or inadequate oxygenation of the blood. All of this lies beyond the edge of the abyss.
The McKellar AbyssalThe magic number for oxygenation of the blood is 88%. When my oxygen level dropped below 88% while on a treadmill during my last visit to Mayo Clinic, I stepped into a new world. It's a world of home oxygen generators/concentrators, tanks and regulators, tubes and cannulas — life with a hose in your nose. Also, somewhere around 87 — 88%, one slips over the edge of a steep cliff and the oxygen level that has slowly decreased to that point drops precipitously. This sudden drop leaves very little time to take any action.
Back on February 4, I walked into Aspirus Keweenaw Hospital, because I was having trouble breathing and needed an doctor's opinion. I've been chronically short of breath for a couple of years, but this time the gasping would not stop and it felt like I was breathing smog or very thick air. I walked from my car to the desk, and slipped over the brink. In seconds, I was Calumet colors (blue and gray), gasping like a fish out of water, barely able to stand, and my vision was narrowing. It all happened incredibly quickly. After my adventure we now know it was a virus clogging up the works, in a system already at the edge of the abyss.
Beyond the edge of the abyss is pain. Fingers and toes tingle and then catch fire. Larger muscles ache terribly, as though clamped in a vise. Chest muscles and the diaphragm convulse, shaking and aching. Lungs burn and my heart drums in my ears, growing ever more rapid until I learn what heartache truly means. A visit to this wonderful place requires only that I forget the rules momentarily by rushing up a few stairs or getting up to answer the phone too quickly. Life on the edge can be tricky.
Living on the EdgeI now live on the edge of the McKellar Abyssal, trying to navigate along the cliff edge and not step over. While writing this update, I sit with my MacBook and type in a comfortable position — without any oxygen support. I even get up and slowly (very slowly) trek into the kitchen to reheat my tea. Anything more athletic than that pretty much requires additional oxygen. I can even run a shallow deficit for a minute or two, but then I must stop and wait as my lungs labor to bring balance back. Growing up as an asthmatic child and an overweight adult, I know when my oxygen level is down, but I also have a fingertip pulse oximeter in my pocket to double check my senses.
An oxygen concentrator sits in my kitchen, with a 50' hose and a nasal cannula. Most of the time, when I need oxygen, I draw it from the machine, which also humidifies that oxygen to slow drying of my nasal passages. I have a tank of oxygen next to my bed because it's on the second floor of our house, and although the hose reaches my room easily, I cannot reach the machine to shut it off when not needed. So, I take 5 to 10 minutes to climb the stairs and refresh my oxygen from a tank.
We're also experimenting with small tanks of oxygen for trips outside the home. Rather than dragging a larger tank down the road behind me, I have a small, light weight tank with a pulse regulator on top. The pulse regulator only releases oxygen when I take a breath, which extends the range of the small tank from about an hour of steady use to 6 to 8 hours. So far, the system seems to work OK, however, weather has been too cold for me to spend much time outside. My lungs seem to have an aversion to chilly air — whether or not it's crisp or clean.
A Big TestThis coming weekend, we shall test this system by traveling to Rochester, MN by car for a very important checkup. We leave Sunday, so I can spend all of Monday running the gamut of tests at Mayo Clinic from pulmonary function to bone marrow biopsy. We hope to return home on Tuesday. Doctors at Mayo Clinic will decide if I can stop my anti-leukemia medication, as I have been in full remission for five years. We are taking only tanks with us, so this should be an interesting, if slightly frightening adventure.
I will publish another update when the results are in and we make it safely home again.
Good afternoon and God bless!