Flying sick and the importance of breathing

I knew, finally sitting on our long flight across the country, shivering and shaking under our pile of coats, that I’d face repercussions for this. I didn’t know what else to do, other than fly home sick with the kids. But I knew it wasn’t going to just be OK.

“This isn’t terrible,” I tell myself. “This isn’t pleasant. But it’s not horrible. It’s uncomfortable, that’s all.” Shivering, unable to get warm, kids watching movies on either side of me.

In San Francisco we wait endlessly in the stifling plane to slowly file out. “Excuse me, can we squeeze by? Our connection leaves in 5 minutes,” fell on ears so reluctant they were deaf. One person moved. The next? “Where do you want me to go?” So we wait. Anxiously. Silently. Kids still half-full of sleep.

Released from the plan, we run to our next gate. The kids great sports, running even though they’d just been sleeping minutes before. Berry’s back pack half unzipped, opening further with each step. A cup falls out. I stop to pick it up. Down a moving sidewalk. Turning right down a new hall. Endless numbers to gallop past, chest bursting, body just not able to keep going. But we keep going, the kids making it first to gate 79, squeaking in just in time.

In Eugene, my feet drag toward the baggage claim. I can’t make them move any faster even though my brain says I should be able to. One step, then another. I know, then, I’ve reached my body’s limits. At some point it will simply stop and fall to the floor. And yet we aren’t done. The suitcases on the baggage carousel, wet and heavy. I drag them off and we head out but I can’t pull them both. Too heavy for Duncan. Pull one, push the other, out to the mini-van, heave them inside. Then home to my blissful bed.

That first night is so sweet, asleep in clean soft sheets, against my husband. For a little while, at least, until my coughing ousts him from the bed.

The next days blur. The kids are up in the morning, so he takes them to school. I insist they go, even though Duncan wants to sleep more. But they had to go. I pick them up in my PJs, hanging onto the steering wheel, willing them to see me. The next day, my mother-in-law gets them. And by the next, I’m at Urgent Care. Five days of 101+F fever. It’s time.

Taking my temperature. Elevated, but only 99.something. Coughing through the mask Adam puts on me upsidedown as we came through the door. The nurse practitioner gets the basic story. Sick since Sunday. Fever. Flying on Tuesday.

“Did you wear a mask?” she asked.

I shook my head. “I didn’t have one. And they may have not let me on the plane.” I’d felt bad at the time, but then I listened and heard coughing and sneezing all around me. It hadn’t occured to me a mask might have protected me from other germs.

“It’s everywhere,” she said.

She asks questions about onset – sudden or gradual. Then, “Breathe. Deeply.” I couldn’t. I try and come out gasping, coughing, unable to get more air in.

Does anyone else cry when their body stops working properly? Or when people ask too many questions that are too hard to answer? Well, I do. And it was too much, all the waiting to find out what was happening, the probing and performing. Plus, I couldn’t breathe and that freaks me out.

“What’s going on?” she asks. Like I can say.

I hold up a finger. “I need a minute,” I whisper. Through the mask. She couldn’t hear. So I cried and held my breath, trying to calm it, letting it through in wisps rather than gasps.

“I need a minute,” I try again. Just a minute to myself, in my head, to calm down, to get control of this rebelling body. That’s all.

I explain what happened, where it hurt, how I couldn’t breathe and was scared, just needed time to calm down and be OK.

She frowns at me.

“Does she usually get like this?” she asks my husband.

I don’t know what he says. I breathe. Just breathing was all I needed to do. And not cry. Wiping my eyes and nose on tissues and the sleeves of my gown. Unable to actually look at anyone full in the face or it might start all over again.

“I’m going to order a nebulizer treatment right now and see if that helps,” she says, eyes still scowling. “Then I want a chest x-ray. I want to make sure I’m not missing anything.” She leaves us in the room together.

A nurse with nebulizer and tank enters, delivering them with brief instructions. Breathe deep, even if it makes you cough. And it does. The coughing is awful. But I suck it in through tears, willing it to reach into my lungs and calm the creaking of my exhales.

Later, the xray. Chest against the plate. Deep breath. Hold it. Release. Coughing and crying. Why is it so awful to cough, propped up on medical equipment in a hospital gown?

“How long have you felt unwell?” the tech asks.

“Since Sunday.”

“That’s not fair,” she says. “Your hair looks great. And you sound so bad.”

I did shower today, I think. This is how my hair usually looks after a shower.

She takes pity on me and manuevers me into a wheelchair to roll back to the exam room. I curl up on the bed with my fantastic-looking hair, wanting to be back home.

The nurse practitioner hands me my x-rays as she glides in the room along with some words about a cluster of spirocites in my right lobe. In other words, pneumonia.

“I thought you’d tell her she had a virus and to go home and rest,” says my husband, looking pleased.

The last time I looked at a chest x-ray, it was my mum’s. Her lungs were full of cancer-laden cotton balls. Mine just have some unwanted beasties hanging out that we can kill off. But still. Three weeks after I saw inside her lungs they took their last breaths,

“Do you have any allergies?” she asks.

I manage to successfully list my ever-growing antibiotic allergy collection.

“Azithromycin,” she says. I nod. I know that one. And OK. “5 days, Take 2 pills today, then one a day for 4 days. Plus an albuterol inhaler. Use it if you start wheezing. Lots of rest, and fluids.”

I’d seen the consideration in her eyes, whether to send me home or to the hospital. But we were dismissed to home, weaving our way to the car, to the couch, to bed. Kids come home from school with Grandma Sue.

“Hey, have you seen these pictures of inside your mom’s body?” Adam asks the kids, making light of it all. Later he tells me, “Take it easy, OK. You’ve got an illness people sometimes die from.”

The weekend commenced. I’m not sure what happened.

Days pass and I measure progress in small victories. On Monday I manage to get dressed for the first time in days. On Tuesday I get kids from school. Wednesday I drop them off in the morning — a bad idea, I learn, as I stop to rest on the way back to the car, gathering an unintended crowd of concerned parental friends.

Client work piles up and I tackle it in small bites, resting in between short sessions or working from bed. It’s one of the benefits of self-employment, considering there’s no paid sick leave.

My cough continues, reminding me with each sudden, explosive exhalation that I’ve given birth to two children and perhaps I should have paid more attention to doing my kegels after all. I’m going to need to buy more pantiliners soon, but there aren’t any local grocery stores that deliver. I checked one night when we ran low on essentials, before the husband headed out into the night.

I dislike being a pale imiation of myself, wan and weak, unable to run a household and feed a horde. But I know I can’t will energy into myself, any more than I could two decades ago when I first fell ill with Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfuction Syndrome and Fibromyalgia (I like to use the longer name, as it sounds more important than simple tiredness).

A friend posts an inspirational photo saying on Facebook. Something about acceptance. Ah, yes, acceptance. Sometimes what is just is and we get to deal with it, no matter how we may personally feel about the whole thing. So I remain at rest, lying down in between episodes of 30 Rock on Netflix and bouts of working. Perhaps when I get really dizzy and tired, I think, my body is trying to tell me to lie down.

My book sits resting, in the middle of editing, two chapters in the process of being combined into one and fleshed out with vivid memories brought back by my trip to my regular old bar in Rochester, of all places. Rochester in winter is nothing like the Caribbean, but still echoes of similar experiences ring forth. Small things trigger memories.

All I can really do is breathe. And listen to my lungs crackle as the last of this illness releases itself from my body.