I’m afraid of the coronavirus. I have elderly relatives, some in good health, some in poor health. I worry about their safety during this unprecedented time. I have friends and relatives who smoke cigarettes now or smoked them in the past. I’m worried for them. I know people who are generally in poor health or who have recently been sick. I worry about them.
I also worry about myself even though I’m in relatively good health. Sometimes, I can’t help but panic. The reason I worry – my left lung has spontaneously collapsed twice in my lifetime.
The first time it happened, I was sixteen and a nervous wreck. I hated high school and was desperate to figure out where to go to college. Plus, I was very petite, weighing less than 100 pounds. I was not healthy.
One night, I was lying on the couch watching tv when a pain began stabbing the left side of my chest. The pain radiated to my left arm and was so intense that I couldn’t sit still. My mom thought I was having a heart attack and called an ambulance. The paramedics were calm and professional, but I could tell they were concerned. After they loaded me into the ambulance and hooked me up to their machines, I moved suddenly and disrupted one of the monitors. I remember one of the paramedics saying “What happened?” in a panicked tone. The other paramedic reassured him, and me, that nothing was wrong, I had only moved.
The stabbing pain didn’t ease until I got to the hospital. In its place was a weird, aching pressure, but I could finally breathe deeply without feeling like I would pass out. The chest x-ray revealed a pneumothorax. The upper portion of my left lung was shriveled. The doctor didn’t think a chest tube was necessary, assuring me the collapse would re-inflate on its own. After two days in the hospital, I was back home.
I returned to school and was looking forward to going to New York in a few weeks to look at colleges. Then I started coughing. Fever and exhaustion followed. I had another chest x-ray, which showed pneumonia. The doctor gave me medicine and told me to rest, but I didn’t cancel my travel plans.
My dad was staying with his cousin on Long Island while he attended work-related training in New York for two weeks. One weekend, my mom, my grandmother, and I took the Amtrak from Washington, D.C. to New York City and then boarded the Long Island Railroad so we could visit my dad and see some colleges. I don’t know if it was because I was so sick, but New York felt like another planet to me. Everyone was so loud. Everything moved so fast. The buildings in the city were so tall that I could hardly see the sky when I looked up.
I eventually recovered from the pneumonia, and my life went on. Instead of New York, I ended up moving to the New Orleans areas, which is where I lived when I suffered my second pneumothorax.
I was twenty-four, working a full-time job as a legal secretary, and going to school four nights a week to learn how to deal blackjack at a casino. I was still underweight, and stress and exhaustion consumed my life.
One morning, I was getting ready to walk out the door to go to work when I slung my backpack onto my left shoulder and happened to sneeze at the same time. That’s all it took. The pain from eight years before struck again. I knew immediately what was happening. I went to work anyway, hoping the pain would ease as it had the first time. I sat at my desk, and my boss asked how I was. I said I was okay. Then a moment later, I told her I wasn’t okay and that I thought my lung had collapsed. I went home and called my mom, crying and sweating from the intensity of the pain. She told me to go to the hospital. The pain made me so impatient that I drove myself instead of calling an ambulance.
At the hospital, I told the triage nurse what I thought had happened. She listened to my chest, didn’t hear anything weird, and thought I was being ridiculous. But the emergency room admitted me anyway. By the time the x-ray technician came to pick me up, the pain had eased to the same achy pressure I had experience the last time. Again, the x-ray revealed a pneumothorax, same location, same percentage of my lung.
I only stayed in the hospital a few hours, and I didn’t get pneumonia. I went back to work and my classes. I graduated from casino school. Then I got a full-time job at one of the riverboat casinos. I dealt blackjack for about a month (which is a whole other blog post) before I came down with a cold because of all the smoke in the casino. The next morning, I called in sick and went back to sleep. When I woke up later, my eyeballs felt like they were steaming. My glasses actually fogged up when I put them on. I checked my temperature and took a cold shower to try to reduce my fever. Then I went to the doctor. This time it was bronchitis.
Right now, I’m in self-isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic. The stress of constantly being alone has my mind playing the what-if game. What if my lung collapses again and I get sick with COVID-19? What if I don’t recover? I could actually die. I’m healthier now than I was in the past, which means the odds are in my favor that this scenario won’t occur. I worry, though, even as I try my best to be safe.