The Scariest Thing I’ve Ever Done: Fifty-Two Hours, Breathing
I never knew what weak felt like until I was intubated. But with my lungs unable to breathe for themselves, shriveled up like wads of wet cotton balls, my body was desperately starved of oxygen. Moving my hand four inches up to grasp the bedrail was such an ordeal it required ten minutes’ of recuperation.
And I was drowning. The tube, it was kinked, hissing thin sustenance; I was constantly on the verge of blacking out, gasping, like a fish on a dock trying to immerse its gills in a puddle. I needed to tell them that the tube was twisted, it was starving me, but I couldn’t move. Every action consumed all my consciousness.
All the while, that thick plastic ridge of the vent rubbed against my gag reflex. Every breath brought nausea, hours of constant face-fucking by a clear plastic tube, my spit pooling up and being slurped away by automata. I remember puking into the mask, all the air vanishing to be replaced with caustic nothing, sucking and finding to my horror that it was all gone, grasping, dying, as bodiless hands shoved suction tubes into my mouth so deep I threw up again just before I passed out.
That wasn’t the worst bit, though. I kept trying to gesture for a pencil, to tell them that the valve was wrong somehow, making motions to write down “NOT ENOUGH AIR HELP.” And when I did, my father’s hand closed over mine, lovingly, reassuringly, damningly, his gentle squeeze as firm as handcuffs of death to my weakened body.
“You’ll be all right, Billy,” he assured me. But I wouldn’t be. He was killing me with kindness. He was stopping me from telling them how they were strangling me.
As it turns out, the tube wasn’t kinked; they were tracking my blood oxygen levels closely. It was my lungs, unable to process the oxygen they were flooding me with; my lungs that so damnably refused to start breathing on their own.
Still, in my drugged-out state, I did not know. And after the second vomiting I finally got a pen and wrote “VOMIT FROM TERROR TAKE IT OUT PLEASE” and they got the hint.
Now the hard part begun.
For the next fifty-six hours, breathing was so painful that each breath took a concerted act of will. I could sip in a shotglass’s worth of air before my shattered-and-rebuilt sternum flooded my body with agony and made me release it. Which gave me just enough energy to breathe in again. Which I had to fight to do.
If I stopped, I would die. Or I would be intubated again, which was far worse than dying.
The first ten hours were a chore; my dad and daughter and wife sat by, but I could pay no attention to them. I had no energy. I had to get that next breath in. I sat with my eyes closed, apparently asleep, but locked in a desperate game of survival. I knew they were there, but I could do nothing aside from occasionally wave at them.
I was sweating from the exertion, but my body was still in survival stage. To move my hand up to my face, to brush the sweaty hair from my eyes, would take eight minutes of recuperation. Every movement became a cost-benefit analysis. Was it worth risking it? Eventually, I withdrew to a deep place, merely nodding and hoping at some point the pain would subside enough that I could sleep.
The nurse, it must be said, was not helpful. “I don’t want the Percoset,” I gasped after eighteen hours. “It’s doing – nothing. It hurts so bad.” The nurse, who had only one other patient on his retinue, marked me down as “Patient refused all pain medications” and left me with nothing but occasional intravenous shots. See, to his mind, I was just panicking for no reason, and once I realized how foolish I was, I’d calm down.
He kept telling me that I needed to relax. I kept telling him it hurt so much to breathe that if I relaxed, I wouldn’t be breathing. “That’s because you’re breathing wrong!’” he told me. “Look how shallow your breaths are! Take deep, nourishing breaths. You’re hyperventilating, kid.”
The nurses took blood; my nerves were so starved of oyxgen I didn’t feel the needles. A day in, I eventually convinced them to take chest X-rays (or perhaps it was on the schedule, I don’t know), and a doctor was brought in to tell me that my lungs were still very shrunken. He put me on a CPAP machine to help expand my chest without the effort, which fixed one problem and introduced another; it shoved extra air into my chest, expanding it, but shocking me with such pain that I couldn’t sleep.
Thirty hours doing nothing but breathing.
I told them I needed to sleep or I was going to pass out and become intubated again. They said that I was toying with my phone too much. (I clutched it in my hand in case I had to call Gini.) They pointed out I’d fallen asleep several times – why, they’d seen me with my eyes closed, head down! I told them that I was hideously awake the whole time, shutting down all non-essential processes in my quest for air. Well, anyway, they told me, you had your anti-anxiety drug already and that didn’t help, so it’s all up to you now. Just chill, buddy.
Gini tried to talk for me. At one point, I remember trying to wheeze out a complaint that what I needed were different pain medications and soon, and the nurse kept talking over my each ragged breath, and Gini said, “I think what Ferrett is trying to say is – ”
“Ma’am, I am talking to the patient now,” he snapped, cutting her off.
Thing is, even as low-energy as I was, my body struggled to find meaning in this chore. I couldn’t think quite properly, but eventually I came to understand that I was on a game show, and every wheeze I managed was giving an answer in a foreign language I did not understand but had ascertained correctly. Score boards were rising in my favor. People – or things very much like people – were cheering me on.
At forty-six hours of constant breathing in and out of the CPAP, I began to hallucinate. If I closed my eyes, I was lying before a large green neck as big as a mural, freckles and goosebumps and traceries of aquablue veins apparent. Shadowy figures watched me from the side of the bed, taking bets. When Gini was there, sometimes she’d say things that made no sense, like an argument about Spock’s baby that I knew Gini would not make, and when I verified she told me no such conversation had taken place. Bugs descended from the ceiling in constant waves to drop on their arms, crawl underneath their necklines.
I pointed out to Gini how terribly realistic this all was. I’m a bad hallucinator, I think – I was still comparing it all to the reality I expected, so even though it was vivid as life, there was a part of me like, “That can’t possibly happen.”
Eventually, my doctor came in and he saw me in pain. “You survived a burst appendix,” he said. “I know you. If you say you’re in pain, you are no wimp. I’m going to find someone and fix this.” And a new nurse came on duty, and they found a better anti-anxiety med – Atavan, how I love thee – and they vowed to move me away into a recovery wing.
Yet they would not let me nap without taking one last walk.
“He has to be up,” they explained. “It’s a part of the healing process.”
“He’s been up for two days’ straight now,” Gini told them. “He needs a nap.”
“One nap after he makes a circuit around the bed,” they said, standing fast.
“Fuck the bed,” I told them. “You make me get up, I’mma make the lobby.” And according to Gini, in that moment, the nursing staff watched me stagger to the nurses’ desk, slap it, and come back, and she could see them realize Oh, wait, he’s not fucking around about this. He’s really trying.
They gave me the good drugs, checking in carefully, and then let me have a three-hour nap. And oh my God, was it beautiful.
Later that night, the nursing staff at the new locale was so attentive and beautiful and caring, they attended to my every need. I remember waking up, in a mild panic, at three in the morning, and I didn’t know where I was. I couldn’t remember why I was there. I just knew I was in trouble.
Those nice people, I thought contentedly. They’re watching over me. They’ll handle it. And I drifted off, trusting, carefree as a boat on a river.
This is mostly just writing up the experience; this is how I process things, by converting them to prose. But if you want a lesson, it is this: this was, literally, the worst thing that ever happened to me. The remaining week of recuperation has been fine, but those first seventy-two hours were a literal living hell. I cried when visitors came. I told them I’d rather die than be intubated again. And I would. The terror that spurred each force-drawn breath was not that I’d pass on, but that they’d put the tubes in my throat again, and oh my God I would take a gun and shoot myself in the fucking face before I let them happen… except I’d be too weak to fight it.
I was too weak for anything. It’s a hell. A living hell of frailty and powerlessness.
But if you want a lesson, take this: I lost the genetic lottery, yes – as the doctors admit, no one at the age of 43 should have three clogged arteries, even if they’re chugging bacon grease milkshakes for breakfast – but I also ate poorly. I didn’t pay as much attention to my body. It’s partially luck of a bad draw, but like my teeth, there were things I could have done better.
So listen. Go eat some healthy food today. Get some exercise in. And if you have any heart pains, get to that ER – I went begrudgingly, thinking it’d be a waste of time, but as my doctor said, I did everything in the precise sequence necessary to save my life.
This was bad. Triple bypasses suck, and this was a comparatively good one – a week later and I’m typing furiously, I’m using the bathroom on my own, I’m showering. If you can, avoid this on your own by keeping yourself in shape.
Besides. Keeping yourself in shape will keep one more awesome person around for a bit longer, and I support that. Totes.