03 October 2008

Breathing 101

I like breathing, and I feel comfortable assuming most other people do, too. Unlike most people, however, I have trouble with breathing owing to a lifelong friendship with Mr. Asthma, the brothers Allergies and a fleeting acquaintance with Miss Bronchitis. This is one occasion where I was not able to pick my friends.

Breathing has been such a challenge for me that, on several occasions when I was young, I nearly died. Until the mid-1960s there were almost no treatments for asthma, so there were a lot of deaths. Allergy medication was also pretty much unknown with the exception (in my case) of chewing on pieces of local honeycomb (which is filled with pollen, which exposed me to small amounts of stuff to which I was allergic, building up [in theory] my resistance to that pollen).

My mother tells the tale of one night, when I was five or six, that she awoke to the sound of me NOT breathing. She raced into my bedroom and found me a pretty shade of blue, slowly asphyxiating because my tonsils were so swollen they closed off my throat, and my sinuses were so congested that no air passed through.

Even after my tonsils were removed, I still had trouble breathing. I nearly always ate with my mouth open because of my severe sinus congestion. (To walk a mile in my moccasins, pinch your nose closed when you are next eating, and then try to eat with your mouth closed. Oddly enough, it's impossible.)

So, throughout my childhood my illnesses made me an outcast (because being the smartest kid in school and wearing glasses were clearly not making me outcast enough). I was not able to join in any of the reindeer games and used to spend my phys ed period in the library, reading.

Thankfully, puberty came along and lessened the amount of breathing problems I had. They never went away, but they were significantly reduced. One of the other visitors in puberty, smoking, passed me by. I had trouble enough breathing clean air, why would I breathe in smoke?

Fast forward about 20 years when I was nearing the age of 40. Guess who came back for a return visit? That's right: Mr. Asthma and the brothers Allergies. Miss Bronchitis stops by usually for xmas, but otherwise is scarcely seen.

I don't have breathing problems like I did when I was a child. I still take allergy medicine, lots of decongestant, and occasionally have to use an inhaler for my asthma. Luckily, I don't have the severity of breathing problems as some people do -- especially people who smoked most of their lives and now have emphysema or lung cancer.

A few years ago I had a real scare: My spouse and I got hot wings for dinner, which we were eating at home. One bite in and I suddenly could not breathe. That sometimes happens, but usually clears once I stand up and start thinking about breathing. Not this time, nearly five minutes went by with only the smallest stream of air able to enter through my now-swollen throat.

I stood there, unable to breathe, unable to tell Matt what was happening. So I took a moment to think, to remember that panic kills, and started thinking through what I could do. I figured I was in anaphylactic shock (severe allergic reaction) and experiencing the most common symptom (throat swollen shut).

We have an alarm system at our house that includes a medical panic button (push the button and the ambulance is alerted). I thought about pressing that, then decided I would instead concentrate on breathing.

I stood there, barely able to breathe, and thought to myself "Be calm. Be calm. Breathe as deeply as I can. Be calm, breathe deeply." To my great surprise, I was able to breathe better, my throat was still swollen, but I was getting in oxygen. Over time I was breathing better and was able to start clearing my throat. After a few more minutes I was able to take some medicine that reduced the reaction. I clearly dodged a bullet this time.

Later, I visited my doctor and told him about this and he said I did the right thing by not panicking. He gave me a prescription for an epi pen (a hypodermic with anti-allergy medicine, which I ended up never needing).

I have had only one other reaction, this one more severe (after eating fresh caught tuna) that sent me to the emergency room.

So now I wear a medical alert bracelet whenever I am away from home (like on vacation). Matt knows about my possible allergic reactions, so do my co-workers, so I am safe there. But it appears that these kinds of things can happen anywhere at any time.

Still, I harbor within me the same great fear I have had since I was old enough to understand the concept of death: I fear I will die by suffocation. That would be poetic, wouldn't it?

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