I spent Thursday night in the hospital.
I was having a hard time breathing since Monday. I ignored it, because I didn’t have time to be sick. So it lingered and lingered.Then it got worse. But I still ignored it. I don’t have time to be sick. I have to go to program. I have to work. I have chapters to read, papers to write, articles to publish, people to help. I am not sick.
By Wednesday, it became an effort just to take each breath. I went to program despite my exhaustion, but I couldn’t hide my cough. I started running to the bathroom so no one would see me struggling to breathe.
I heard the nurse calling me on my way back. She seemed concerned. She said she didn’t even need to listen to my lungs to know that something was wrong; she could hear me breathing feet away. I told her I was fine. I’m not contagious, it’s probably just a mild pneumonia. I talked about it like it was a cold. Nothing major. I promised the nurse I would try to make it to the doctor, even though I didn’t really want to.
I wasn’t planning to end up in the hospital, but after three nebulizer treatments with no improvement, I knew I wasn’t going to make it through the next day. They started breathing treatments as soon as I got to the ER. No change. I ended up on a magnesium drip with IV fluids and Solu-Medrol. Blood tests, nasal swabs, and x-rays all came back clean. It wasn’t an infection. It wasn’t pneumonia. It was COPD.
I spent most of the night crying, eventually falling asleep only to wake up and cry again. I managed to get myself together enough to make it to PHP Friday morning. I made it through most of morning session just fine. Then I took a conscious breath and it all went to shit.
I don’t know if I can quite describe what it feels like. You take in a breath okay, but then it can’t get out. You feel like you’re drowning, but not in water, in air. I hurried out of the room to run to the bathroom again. I saw the nurse out of the corner of my eye, but I was coughing and wheezing so bad I couldn’t talk.
I spent several minutes in the bathroom trying to get back to normal. Shallow breaths. Just take shallow breaths and you’ll be fine. I went back to my group. A few minutes later, my therapist came to the door and pulled me out of group. Great. What did I do now? She took me to the nurse’s office and closed the door.
I sat there, surrounded, trying not to panic. The nurse sat across from me; my therapist sat on the floor. Oh, we’re all sitting. This can’t be good. Someone asked what was going on, if I had gone to the doctor. I told them I went to the hospital; that counts as the doctor. I tried to make it seem not-so-serious. They asked if it was pneumonia.
Before I could answer, I broke down crying. All the emotions came back to me again. The anger. The sadness. The hopelessness. I would have rather had pneumonia.
I didn’t want to cry. My tears did not feel justified. My pain wasn’t valid.
This diagnosis, it’s nothing new to me. I’ve known about the COPD for a while now. So why does it hurt every time I hear a doctor say it? Why am I still grieving? I should be over it by now.
It’s not fair. I went through hell. I got out. This was supposed to be my better life, my life without hurt.
Instead I ended up with this. I didn’t get a break. I got a punishment.
I could sense the concern in the room. I pushed aside my anger and stopped crying. They told me there were options. The nurse handed me a paper with quit assistance programs. My therapist said we could work out a plan. It doesn’t always have to be this way. It doesn’t always have to be a struggle to breathe. You are strong and resilient, she said.
I’m tired of being strong and resilient. It was the truth. What’s the point? Look where strength and resilience has gotten me. Look what I’ve become. A mess.
You need to take time for yourself. What’s that? I go to PHP from 8 to 3:30 every weekday. Then I go straight to work at 4. By the time I get home for the night, I have just enough time to put together a cohesive assignment for grad school. Weekends are full of more work, school work, articles, and errands. I don’t have time for myself.
I just want it to all go away. I want an easy life, even if it’s just for a little while. I don’t want to have to go to a program every day. I don’t want it to hurt when I breathe. I don’t want to be so tired all the time. I don’t want to struggle.
I want to pretend that I am healthy. I want to pretend this diagnosis doesn’t exist. I can breathe. This is normal. There’s nothing wrong with me. This has all been a mistake.
I managed to push it all away for a while. I can smoke a cigarette, nothing is wrong with me. My lungs are fine. My denial was fully engaged, and no one was around to tell me otherwise.
Later on that day, I sat across from my psychiatrist as he waited on hold to try to change my prescription at the pharmacy. I felt the tightness in my chest again. I took a breath and started drowning. I leaned forward and tried to get the air out as best I could.
As I sat back in the chair and tried to compose myself, I heard the psychiatrist say so, you’re a pink puffer. I looked at him, a bit confused. I never in my life heard of a pink puffer before. I asked for clarification. Your breathing, he said. That’s a classic forced expiratory wheeze of emphysema. I don’t even need a stethoscope, I can hear it from here. Doctors would call you a pink puffer.
I don’t know how much longer I can deny the truth.