There were two reasons why I expected 2016’s Valentine’s Day to be different from the others.
One, it was a Sunday. I would go to church, read my scriptures, and spend time with my family. The end.
Two, my family had recently moved to a new area six hours away from my friends and extended family members. I did not have any cards or candy to give out nor receive.
However, it was vastly different in a way I had never before imagined.
Like any Sunday before that, I was sitting in my Sunday School class in between the boys and the rest of the girls. We’d just sung a performance for the rest of our congregation, and I was feeling a little out of breath, but I dismissed it for needing a glass of water and tried to focus on today’s lesson.
There was no other warning. My breathlessness faded away as I listened to the lesson, and suddenly it was back, ten times more powerful than before. I raised my hand to ask a question, relieved to find that I could still talk. I wasn’t choking yet, but it felt like something was stuck in my throat, allowing very little air to pass through. I asked to be excused, and in the bathroom I met a member of my church who worked as a nurse at the nearby Emergency Room. After a few questions and prodding my back and side, she went to go get my mother. When they returned, the nurse told my mother I needed to get to the emergency room.
My lung had collapsed.
Ten minutes later, I was lying on a gurney bed. Lying down made everything hurt more, and so did my crying. Whether I cried out of pain or fear I don’t know. A couple of x-rays confirmed what I felt to be true. The doctors explained that they would cut open my side between two of my ribs and insert a long, sharp tube that would suck out the “bad air” that had escaped my lung and compacted it. That would allow my lung to return to normal size. My mom said I screamed when they did this, but I don’t remember screaming. I do remember a nice nurse telling me to tell her all about what I was doing at school and what I was doing for the holiday. I tried not to laugh and disrupt the doctor as she talked to me. Twenty minutes later, the tube was in, taped to my side so it wouldn’t shift. I wanted to sleep, but I couldn’t get comfortable. I called my best friend, and she helped me calm down. I kept my right arm flat against my side, extra insurance to keep the tube still.
Four paramedics arrived to take me from the stand-alone emergency room to the children’s hospital, which was about twenty minutes away. If nothing else, I could brag to everyone that I’d gotten a ride in an ambulance! When my night nurse arrived- ten minutes after I did- I finally got some painkillers. My mother gave me my favorite plush cat and my baby blanket, and I was finally able to go to sleep.
I spent three days at Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina. When I was allowed to return home, I had to spend the rest of the week lying down, watching TV, and taking it easy. The doctor at the hospital told my mother and me that a Spontaneous Pneumothorax, the lung collapsing on its own without being stabbed or shot, was very rare to find in girls. It mostly occurred in teenage boys who were tall and skinny. I hit two out of three. He also told me that there was only a twenty percent chance of the lung collapsing again. I am eighty percent sure that he lied.
Three months later, school was almost over. My backpack that typically weighed a ton was lightened after I finished two AP tests. As I bent over to set it on the floor next to my desk in English class, my chest exploded in a very familiar pain.
“You’re not choking,” I told myself over and over again. I’d had similar sensations before. A tightness in my chest, almost like a phantom pain of my pneumothorax. Typically, the sensation went away after half an hour. This one just got worse.
I managed to hold off for another class period. It wasn’t too hard to convince my substitute math teacher to let me go to the nurse after I finished my test.
In the nurse’s office, I almost breathed a sigh of relief. The pain had lessened some, but lying down on the cot made it almost feel worse. My dad drove me to the emergency room this time, staying by my side until after they told him that my lung had definitely collapsed again and they needed to re-open my scar from last time to put in the tube. They made him wait outside.
I was scared to go back to the hospital. I was scared to have a “plastic dagger” as I called it, stuck inside me again. This time I did cry, but I still had a nice nurse who talked in a gentle voice and told me to breathe. After another ambulance ride, I spent the weekend mentally preparing myself for a more extensive surgery that would take place on Monday. They would scar up the wall of my lung cavity, so that when my lung inflated, it would heal and attach itself to the wall. It took a week for my right lung to grow back to its normal size. I was convinced that I would never have a collapsed lung again. At least, I hoped I wouldn’t. My Sunday school teacher told me an ambulance ride cost seven hundred dollars, and I imagined that my surgery cost at least sixteen thousand, not including the two emergency room visits and the daily x-rays. My parents had my four younger sisters to take care of too, and two jobs that they hated. I didn’t want them to go bankrupt over my inability to stay healthy.
Barely a month after my second release, it happened again. My left shoulder was sore, it felt like an air pocket that reminded me of my surgery, where some air got trapped. It hurt to move my arm, and my mom didn’t want to take any chances. We drove back to the emergency room, which I had begun to loathe, and after two more cold, dreaded x-rays, I was admitted to the hospital with my third pneumothorax (no longer spontaneous). I cried, blubbering apologies to my mom for having her spend so much money.
She assured me that it was just fine. We had some savings, and my first pneumothorax had put us over our deductible on insurance. She and Dad did not have to pay for my last two hospital visits.
I was relieved. We could pay for my sister’s inhaler. My mom didn’t have to worry about paying for her cancer testing that fall. My dad was able to get his depression pills. We could get my sisters their glasses.
I still cried from the pain, but any sense of guilt was gone. I let myself fall asleep, still wishing I didn’t have to be stuck in the hospital, but relieved that my family would be alright, thanks to our insurance.
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