Collapsible Lungs

Boulevard’s 2018 Spring Issue was full of a number of delightful stories, among them Sommer Schafer’s “My Little Pet,” which I particularly enjoyed. The one I’m actually going to write about here, though, is Robbie Maakestad’s “A Most Fragile Organ.” I read this non-fiction piece a few weeks ago and it stuck with me because it was such a horrific account of a lung in an otherwise healthy college student deflating, and deflating again, and deflating again for a total of five or so times until Maakestad submitted to a very painful and invasive surgery (I had to skim over a lot of the details since I tend toward squeamishness). And then, the lung continued collapsing, and he had to submit to that surgery again. The account is told with humor and skill, which works to make it an enjoyable read and offset the horror. Still, horrified I was. (Okay, I admit, I’m more than a little squeamish. I have a severe phobia of veins and needles, specifically needles and tubes being inserted into veins. When I see an IV in someone’s hand or arm my entire appendage will tingle in sympathy, to the degree of becoming slightly numb.) So this story stuck with me. It was the kind of story that makes you considers the things in your life that seem traumatic or otherwise trying, and think, well, someone has it even worse. Or at the least: well, we each occupy our own hell. Or maybe something more in line with the platitude of “we each have our challenges.”

When my husband complained of chest pains the other day, accompanied with coughing, I did think of Robbie Maakestad’s story, but I thought: no, no, that couldn’t possible happen to us. We already had the whole waking-up-from-back-surgery-to-discover-my-husband-was-opiate-resistant thing. As well as the back pain thing in general. And then the getting prescribed Cymbalta for the pain that stuck around well after that ill-fated surgery, a med that did nothing for his pain and has severe withdrawal symptoms that many doctors still are not aware of due to the manufacturer, Eli Lilly’s, shady labeling practices. “More than 1% of users may experience severe withdrawal symptoms.” At first glance, that phrasing looks innocuous enough. Until you realize that 99% is greater than 1%. The actual number is somewhere near 50% of users who experience severe withdrawal. The only safe way to  discontinue use safely requires a tapering method few doctors are aware of, and getting off too quickly can exacerbate the withdrawal symptoms to a dangerous degree. So, we had enough on our challenge plate, I thought.

Still, the next day I asked my husband again about his lung symptoms. I did a quick Google search. Yeah, you should probably go to Urgent Care. Sure enough: collapsing lung, or pneumothorax. I do admit that it was kind of a comfort to be admitted to the hospital for something that others had experienced or could understand (unlike chronic pain and being opiate resistant, and the whole Cymbalta nightmare). The guy who admitted us said that it happened to his wife twice. Of course, the unpleasant reality is that once it happens, it has a 30% chance of happening again. Or, a 70% chance of not happening again! (I’m trying hard to keep focused on that second number.)

Realistically, Maakestad’s account raised my awareness that something like this could occur and caused me to send my husband to to the hospital. But still, it’s difficult not to think that my fixation and fear somehow brought this into being.

Me: Ah, Jeez! I hope that never happens to us!

The Universe: Well, if you’re going to put the fear out there… huh, let’s see how that shakes out.

Here, The Universe is played by Stephen King.

I was reminded through my husband’s version of this ordeal also that non-fiction is still a creative form of writing. When my husband was set to get the needle to the chest, I remembered Maakestad’s description of the event:

“To pierce the cartilage, the surgeon leaned his entire body weight on the tube, pressing me down into the hospital mattress, which seemed like it was enveloping me. When the tube broke into my chest, it felt like being pitted on a razor-tipped kebab skewer, but my lung inflated almost immediately.”

Okay, so I didn’t remember this verbatum. I remembered the gist: big, fast pain; then it was over. It should be noted that this passage is followed with a break. In that break apparently resides the reality of the inflation procedure, which happens slowly over many hours. And since your brain isn’t sure what else to do with the sensation of your lungs slowly being expanded, it interprets it as pain. I mentioned my husband was opiate resistant, right?

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