This story is by Colleen Murphy and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Happy birthday Mom, Nana, Lily, happy birthday to you ,” rang out. I was surrounded by my family and so glad to be there. My grandkids helped to blow out the one big candle that was on top of my cake. My two daughters jumped up to help serve cake and ice cream.
This birthday was much different to the one from many years ago when I had a bad chest cold. This was way before covid-19, so that was not an issue. Although there is a history of asthma in my family. I didn’t want a birthday party that year. I was coughing and feverish. ( Well, presents were ok. Everyone loves presents.)
I always felt like I live a somewhat healthy life. I eat well, do yoga and take my vitamins. That’s better than most people. I would only go to a doctor when needed. I felt, like most folks, that the doctor might just say there’s something wrong with me. Nobody wants to hear that.
It all started about 20 years ago. My husband, Jack and I were living the dream. We had bought our “forever” home. The last house we were going to live in. It seems like we were moving every four or five years since the girls were little. Sometimes the mortgage or rent got too high and sometimes we didn’t like the area. We all needed a permanent home base. This home was the one.
So, Jack and I are both working. The girls are making new friends at school. We’re all settling in well to our new home and community.
One day in the middle of winter I started feeling a cold coming on. I was coughing and blowing my nose often but I trudged on. I had walking pneumonia a couple times. I toughed it out then and got through it. The next day my cold got worse. Luckily, it’s Friday so I have the weekend to get over this, I thought.
The weekend came and went. I stayed in bed, only getting up to use the bathroom. The girls were on a week long vacation from school. I was happy that they were both at sleepovers so I didn’t need to worry about them.
I woke up coughing on Monday. It took me a few minutes to catch my breath after that. It felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. My chest felt extremely tight, like rubber bands were squishing my lungs. I sat up in bed for a little bit, just breathing.
I finally got out of bed to trek downstairs to use the bathroom. By the time I got to the bottom of the stairs I was breathless again. I sat on the toilet trying to take a deep breath. When I got up I grabbed an over the counter inhaler that i had in the medicine cabinet.
“You okay in there?” Jack asked as I opened the door.
“I’m having a little trouble breathing, ” I said quickly between breaths.
I sat at the kitchen table. I took a couple puffs off the old inhaler. It didn’t seem to help. I was gasping for air, like I was trying to breathe thru a straw. My lungs would not expand to take in enough air. I was scared but I didn’t want Jack to see that while he stood there rubbing my back.
“Do you want me to call for an ambulance?” Jack asked concerned.
I shook my head no. I’m not that sick and you all need me here, I thought, just calm down and I would be all right. Unfortunately, that was not the case. I could not get enough air in. Then I had a coughing fit. That made things so much worse.
After a few more minutes of trying to catch my breath, I decided I did need medical help. I nodded to Jack to make the call.
“Good, I can’t watch you struggle to breath any longer,” Jack said while dialing 911.
While we waited for help to arrive, I chose the wall clock as a focal point. Slowly breath in, breath out, take your time. No need to freak out,. I repeated to myself. Jack was pacing from window to window. Then he ran out to meet the EMTs. I did not want to move. I had gotten into an almost comfortable position with my elbows on my knees and my face in my hands. Everything had crumbled away, all that mattered to me was to keep breathing.
Jack led two women into the kitchen. One carried a medical bag and the other had a small tank of oxygen. I was so happy to see them.
“Hi, So your not breathing so well? ” One of them asked as she slipped the oxygen mask on my face and secured it with the hose around my ears.
“Don’t worry. You are going to be fine,” the other woman said.
Then a man and woman came in on either end of a stretcher. They quickly packed me up on the stretcher and whisked me out to the ambulance. Amidst all the chaos Jack tried to stay close and yet stay out of the way. He diligently answered every question they threw at him. I gave him a thumbs up as they loaded me into the ambulance.
“Okay, just a few things to do before we head out, ” the man said while he handed me a cup with a top kind of contraption. He then lowered the oxygen mask.
“That’s a nebulizer. Put your lips on the mouthpiece and breath in the medicine,” he told me.
“A little pinch,” the woman said as she started an IV in my arm.
Then we were on our way. I continued breathing in the mist from the nebulizer. I was starting to feel that I was breathing better. shortly, we were at the hospital. At the ER they put oxygen prongs up my nose. I was given another nebulizer and medicine through the IV. Then Jack came in. His smile and familiar face were so good to see.
“I’m hearing it may have been a severe asthma attack, ” Jack said, “but you don’t have asthma.”
“Lily, we are going to admit you to the ICU, we want to keep an eye on you. You’ll see doctor Nolan when he gets here. First, we will stop at x-ray, ” nurse Heather announced.
Jack stayed with me as much as he could. By now, it was going on four pm. The nurses settled me into my bed. My stomach growled loudly. Then the nurses surprised us with two bowls of beef barley soup and diced peaches on the side. I hadn’t realize how hungry I was until I smelled the soup.
” You should probably go home soon. The girls will want to know how I’m doing,” I told Jack as we ate our soup.
“I don’t want to leave you,” he said.
“I am feeling better. I’m also pretty tired so I’ll be going to sleep. You look tired too,” I said stroking Jack’s cheek .
After he fixed my pillow and smoothed the blankets , Jack sat on the side of my bed. He sighed and gave me a gentle hug. Then a new nurse came in to give me more IV medicine. Jack kissed my cheek and then waved good-bye. A minute later the nurse finished, smiled and left.
I laid back in the semi reclined bed and stared up at the white ceiling tiles. My heavy eyelids closed but I could still hear the sounds of the ICU. The machines beeping, the ventilator in the next room keeping someone alive, swish, swish. I started to cough. I opened my eyes and sat up. Outside my room was a short, older man with a doctor’s lab coat on. I coughed again.
“That sounds like an emphysema patient,” the doctor said as he came Into my room. My eyes widened. What? I thought.
“Hi Lily, I’m Doctor Nolan. I’ll be your pulmonary doctor. We’ll set you up to keep your emphysema from getting any worse. I’ll talk with you tomorrow, ” he said. Then he ran off.
That is how my day unfolded on the unwanted anniversary of my emphysema diagnosis
Emphysema, I thought. So many questions flooded my mind. How long have I got? Why me? i was too tired to think about it. My eyes closed , tears streaming down my cheeks. Swish, swish ,swish.
That was at least twenty years ago and we are still here. I have many limitations now and there have been ongoing changes we have had to deal with. Jack has been the best husband and caregiver. I feel so blessed for every day, whether an anniversary or just an ordinary day. My greatest joy is that I can still blow out a candle, with a bit of help from my grandkids.