All my life I’ve had a silly little dream about running. I would see myself running through fields of wheat in Kansas, along Minnesota deer trails, on the beaches of an exotic island and once up the side of a mountain. Crazy hey? Even now, as I enter my seventy first year, I have this same dream and you know what, it still hurts.
When I was growing up, most of my friends were athletic, playing baseball, football, swimming, running foot races, and more but not me. I couldn’t run and didn’t know why. I tried, believe me I tried so hard and wished even harder but I could only dash maybe twenty yards when I would get a terrible pain in my left side. More than once, this pain doubled me over and I dropped to the ground crying. It hurt, and I didn’t know why.
I told my mother about this and her answer was, your brothers can do it, so can you. That was her mantra until, in my early teens while playing outside with my dog Misty, the pain hit me worse than ever. I fell to the ground gasping for breath. Misty must have thought I was suffering from overheating so she licked my face like a madman.
A neighbor noticed me laying on the ground and came over. When she saw how hard it was for me to breath, she yelled for my mother to call an ambulance. My mother came out of the house and said I was “faking it for attention” but that she would call the doctor. So they helped me into the house, sat me on the couch and she called.
The doctor told my mother he didn’t think it serious but to bring me into his office in the morning for a chest x-ray anyway. I don’t know which hurt the most, my side or my mother saying I was faking for attention.
I spent a miserable night. Couldn’t get comfortable and when I did, either the pain became more intense or my breathing more troubled. My mother seemed to have slept well, I could hear her snoring in her bedroom. (In all fairness, I should note that I have sleep apnea and, in retrospect suspect my mother did too so the quality of her sleeping must remain in question.)
In the morning, I was up with the sun, showered and ready to go to the doctor before mother got out of bed. While waiting, I found I was the most comfortable standing and when I tried to sit, the pain grew intense, so when it was time to go, I was wondering how I was going to sit in the car for the thirty minute drive to the doctor’s office. Mother, attentive but also had to remind me that if I was doing this for attention, I was going to pay the bill plus ten percent interest. Back in the 1950s ten percent was close to usury.
When we get to the doctor’s office the nurse took one look at me and put my skinny little butt (yep, back then it was small) into a wheelchair and took me directly to the X-Ray Department at the clinic. Once there, she does the routine vital signs work then waits outside while I get zapped. That done, the nurse is at my side checking me and standing guard as if I’m about to explode while the radiology people develop the film. When we get the ok to go, I’m hurting so it’s back into the wheelchair and to the doctor’s office examining room where my mother was waiting.
After a few minutes the doctor comes in and says, “Richard you have a right lung pneumothorax of unknown etiology.” (I wrote that down.) He explained that pneumothorax means a collapsed lung and etiology means unknown origin.
“Could he have done it to himself? He’s always doing things to get attention.” My mother asked (Thanks for the vote of confidence mom!)
Don’t recall everything the doctor replied but it was something to the effect of, he would have to have struck his back or chest very hard to accomplish it and “I see no external signs of trauma.” He treated me by applying a tight binding to my chest until the lung expanded again. But in retrospect, he never mentioned why I was having pain on the left side. A mystery finally solved when I was in my sixties.
I had a number of these episodes throughout my teens, enough to make “You’re faking it for attention.” a mantra for my mother.
When I was old enough, I joined the Naval Reserves like my brothers had done, but when I went to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center and tried to swim, I couldn’t. This was probably because no one ever taught me, but was more likely because I couldn’t breathe and when I swallowed water, I choked. They had to drag my ass out of the water every time. That hurt.
When I returned from the Great Lakes, I decided to get out of the Naval Reserves and join the Air Force. I knew I would be successful there, I had to be just to show them I could. Well, two weeks into my basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, TX I collapse while running in formation. Woke up in the infirmary with the most sarcastic male nurse I’ve ever seen looming over me. I couldn’t wait to hear the mantra, but he didn’t know it so he carted me off to x-ray, where they discovered my right lung was partially collapsed. I was given a medical discharge.
I left Lackland in pain – physical and emotional. In retrospect, it was good because they had tagged me to become an Air Policeman and ship me to Thule, Greenland. Greenland would be no problem but I could have gotten someone killed if I couldn’t perform my duties as a cop.
Back home, which really was no more than a room in someone’s house, I started looking for work. I began working at the VA hospital in Minneapolis, MN as a dishwasher. No running, no swimming, no climbing and I could breathe – Yay. I worked hard and earned the coveted role of line prep in the seventh floor patient dining room. It was so cool, alone doing my thing in the secured dining room of the psychiatric ward. That lasted until the day a patient came running in and said “the president’s been shot!” Yeah, sure bud what else is new. Lunch is over and I need to pick up the dirty trays from the patient rooms and you can’t be in here alone, so out you go.
As I ushered the patient out of the dining room, I noticed something rather odd. A nurse was on her knees in the hallway crying her eyes out. Now this is getting weird. That was about 1:00 PM, November 22, 1963, the day I quit working at the VA hospital.
My next job was as an orderly in the Emergency Room of the Minneapolis General Hospital, definitely not a good place for white uniforms. Dark red would have worked better.
The year I turned twenty one, the hospital was taken over by Hennepin County and I was asked to join the newly formed Hennepin County General Hospital Ambulance Service. I was HOT in my uniform but I was keeping a secret – I was having respiratory problems especially on humid days. That was to become a problem when carrying patients down flights of stairs. Never dropped one but came close more than once and by the time we got to the bottom I was gasping for air. No one said anything about it but I think they suspected. Then one day my secret was out. While unloading a patient from the back of the ambulance I got a severe pain in my left side. We set the gurney down and I immediately collapsed. That really hurt!
I ended up in the staff physician’s office telling him my complete medical history. He got an x-ray and sure enough, my right lung had collapsed by about sixty percent. He informed me I needed immediate surgery and recommended a cardio-vascular surgeon at another hospital. I agreed thinking I would finally be healed so he ordered an ambulance to take me (no charge!).
The next morning they operate. I wake up cut from mid-sternum to my right underarm, two tubes stuck into my side, IVs in both arms, oxygen nasal cannula on my face, tube in my bladder and my doctor sitting on the edge of my bed.
The doctor said the procedure, called a thoracotomy was a success and that all they had done was “scape the pleura of the (right) lung” then “sprinkled talcum powder” over it and closed it up. Tubes in my sides were to drain any fluids from the chest cavity so my lung could expand. “You’ll be as good as new in a couple weeks.”
The next step was to get me out of bed (this helps prevent postsurgical pneumonia) – it hurt. A nurse and an orderly helped me stand then with wheeled IV standard, tubes hanging out of my side, a pump attached to a long extension cord and a Foley catheter hanging below my belt we went for a “walk”. It hurt but I made it.
That evening they removed the IVs, tubes from my side and Foley catheter from my bladder. Guess which one HURT! The following morning I was discharged, told to stay home for a couple days and report any issues immediately.
My mother came to visit and actually said nothing about my doing it to get attention. I was amazed, but then again, she never apologized for not believing me – that hurt.
I was twenty four when they did the surgery and told me I’d be fine. Once my surgery healed, I tried to get some exercise by running. I wanted to get into shape to apply for a job as a police officer so I ran, not very far because it hurt. My left side hurt. I gave up on everything athletic, even to the extent of playing ball with my kids and that hurt.
I had a couple more severe attacks over the years but didn’t do much about them. I learned how to bind my chest by myself and let it go at that. Then one winter day when I was sixty six years old, I slipped on some ice and did a major back slap on the ground. I could barely breathe let alone get up so I lay there for a few minutes wondering if this was the end. It wasn’t, but I sure thought so. I managed to get up, get to my car and drive home to bind my chest but this time it felt different so I called my doctor. He told me to go to the radiologist for a chest x-way which I did. A few hours later, the nurse called me and said the doctor had referred me to a pulmonologist and that I had to get a scan of my chest. So it’s back to the radiologist for the scan then home again. Almost to the minute I arrive home, I get a call from the pulmonologist’s nurse saying I should come right in but she couldn’t tell me why.
By this point in time, I’m hurting like there’s no tomorrow and wondering if this is just a bad dream. At the pulmonologists office, the nurse takes me right in to see the doctor who makes me wait an hour then comes in to tell me he knows why my lungs collapsed so much. I was born with a congenital defect of my left lung – it never fully inflated. Seems it never adhered to the posterior wall of the rib cage forming a void which could not be seen on x-ray nor heard in my breathing. He said he was surprised I hadn’t died when my right lung completely collapsed. I told him it hurt too much to die.
So, finally after sixty six years of complaining and being thought a liar, someone listened and proved I wasn’t. Someone found the problem on my LEFT side and told me it caused all the problems on my right. Someone who said I wasn’t doing it for attention.
What hurts the most now is I never got to look my mother in the eye and say, you were wrong and you hurt me by not believing! You caused the pain and ridicule I felt from others. You should apologize.
I cannot run and it hurts.
Happen to notice I didn’t mention my father in this? He was only a shadow, there but never in my life. He died when I was fifteen