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Asthma, Pneumonia, Zombies, and the Afterlife

Lifelong asthmatic: Used to having shortness of breath, but this was outside the box. Been uncomfortable during the Christmas holidays, maybe even before that, thinking, “Once the weather cools, all this pollen will die down.” And when the coughing got too conspicuous, the clinic could supply a “breathing treatment" from the respiratory therapist.

But by mid-January things were worse, and on January 20, the clinic ordered us up to the ER at the new Viera Hospital. And they checked me in with pneumonia.

Pretty darn sick. (And listen, I didn’t neglect precautions. I’d had the pneumonia shot two times, and flu shots every year, even a shingles shot, but evidently to no avail.)

Five days later and home again, everything was going downhill. John fell and hit his head during the night. I gouged a hole in my ankle on a bolt in the walker. By day two (or was it day three?) the shortness of breath was acute. I'd cough and I could not get any air. I was exhausted. John was exhausted. I seriously believed I was going to die.

Hazy thought: "ER will know how to dispose of the body." Gasped out “Call 911!” They came.

I remember being in the van. Trying to breathe

I remember being in the ER. Trying to breathe.

Somebody brought a gown and somebody took off my clothes. Trying to breathe, I saw my T-shirt on the floor under people’s feet and thought, “But I really liked that T-shirt. Oh well . . .”

And then – Gone!

Two and a half days later I woke up in a hospital bed, too weak to move. And my breathing was perfect! And it’s still perfect. Wow! But I REMEMBER NOTHING. (Okay, Nora Ephron already used that line! Even so, it’s true for me, too. )

They had given me an injection of the drug that killed Michael Jackson – not enough to kill me, but to put me to sleep while I was on a ventilator, and while they did a bron·chos·co·py – reached into my bronchial tubes and into my lungs and sucked out all sorts of nasty gooey solids, popped them into plastic bags and sent them to the lab. The labwork found two strains of pseudomonas a word I interpret as meaning bad bug pretending to be pneumonia plus a couple of strains of strep.

Meanwhile, back in my body, I was remembering nothing, which was a good thing, while they had been pouring antibiotics and steroids into me until I was pink and very healthy-looking (except my hair. Awful hair, as usual.)

However, among those in the conscious world, was the knowledge that old people who have had a prolonged period of unconsciousness sometimes are no longer there when they wake up. Ooooooo.

Soon after they stopped giving me the knockout drug, and I woke up, my darling elder son came sailing in, saying, “So, Mother – what do you think of President Trump!” (In retrospect, I think this was a test.) “WHAT? How long have I been out?” (You see, I could remember that I had been out – just not what happened. That Michael Jackson drug is dandy stuff, when handled by a professional.)

Jeff later confessed that while he was driving down from Jacksonville, he was in a nervous state for fear that my brain might have turned to jello while I was a zombie!

But the brain remained intact. Thank goodness!

Yes, friends, this is my confession and my joy. I was a Zombie for two and a half days, and I recovered!

And I owe it all to the grand folks at Viera Hospital: the doctors, respiratory therapists, nurses, nursing assistants, cleaning folks. It’s a beautiful hospital, immaculate, all the latest equipment, beautiful decor, truly wonderful staff.

And, oh yes, BTW they saved my life!

I kept asking who actually did the job. (I’d happened to see my chart and it said “Total respiratory failure.” Not hard to interpret.)

Finally, the respiratory therapist who woke me up for treatments at 11:00 and at 2:00 and at 5:00, admitted to the deed. “I did it. You kept trying to throw yourself off the bed, and and I couldn’t get at you. Until that cute little nurse, got you by the arm and gave you that shot, and then you were like a dead person. Much easier to handle.”

One is so vain. I’d had a vision of doctors to the right, doctors to the left, “Here, let me assist,” “Scalpel . . .” But it was just routine respiratory therapy. So thanks yet again for that. And for waking me in the night. (I think it was an MD who did the bronchoscopy. Thank you, Sir!) And thank you to all those doctors and nurses and respiratory therapists. And thanks to the guy who invented that magic vacuum cleaner. Thank you for my life.

Another respiratory therapist (over time, there were several) told me: “Did you know that only two countries in the world license that specialty? The U.S. and Canada. When somebody in Dubai needs a breathing treatment, they have to import an American or a Canadian.” What a shame! Think of all the people in England and France and Nigeria who are going through what I had been going through and not making it because they have no respiratory therapist to save them. Let’s have that specialty everywhere! The whole world needs that specialty. They save lives routinely, daily – no sweat, it’s a mere bagatelle!

Also, while I was in hospital, the nursing staff was so good to me: cheerful, skillful, sympathetic, helpful, patient. You know, when I was a young woman, nursing was not a high-status job. When my cousin Susy decided to be a nurse, my grandmother was horrified! “Be a doctor, dear. Be a teacher . . . .” But now, it’s a profession. There is hardly any ceiling: nurse practitioner, nurse anesthetist, respiratory therapist – yes, it’s very demanding work, but it’s also virtuous work in a not-always-virtuous world. And at last it’s becoming well-paying work. Several of those younger women had small children, and it made me glad to think that they had a – yes, virtuous – and decent-paying way up the professional ladder.

So: here I am, feeling better, with the promise that in six months, I will be completely recovered and back to normal.

That’s my story for today.

Kathy Lees


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