The Horror of Not Breathing

A hard coughing fit, the kind where you cannot stop and you cannot draw breath, is an overwhelming emotional experience for me that leaves me mentally drained.

I had severe asthma as a child. It wasn’t the debilitating non-stop puff-the-inhaler-between-every-word stereotype you see on television. I’ve never met anyone like that, and doubt there are many. I was very physically active, taking long bike rides through the country, playing countless hours of basketball in our driveway with my brother, and enjoying hiking and camping. I played trumpet and french horn in the band, which requires a bit of wind.

I have the kind of asthma that comes suddenly and leaves you frantically gasping to suck in air, and that can last for days or weeks. I remember spending days at a time lying on our couch desperately trying to draw in enough oxygen and not being able to. I felt like I was suffocating…I was suffocating, and I felt certain I was going to die, and at times I wished it would just happen already. This is not my only memory from from what was a rather typical smalltown childhood, but it is a significant memory–the helplessness of a 10 year old experiencing the very edge of dying, for hours at a time, and not being able to do anything about it.

In high school I started getting monthly allergy shots, and the frequency, and for the most part the severity, of my attacks decreased. But they never went away completely.

I have almost died. In 1990 one of my roommates brought home a cat, one of my allergy triggers. I ended up in the emergency room for several hours, laying next to a 27 year old HIV positive heroin addict who looked like he was 60 and who was also dying. I did find out that asthma patients get shuttled to the head of the line at the emergency room. That guy who cut three fingers off with a table saw, or the person spitting up chunks of lung may look bad, but they’re not going to die in the next thirty minutes; the non-breather will.

After about two hours of treatment, they came to me with the release papers and the doctor was talking to me when suddenly my throat closed up completely. I wasn’t gasping for breath–I had no breath at all. None. The doctor looked closely at me, then called out to some others to get me to some other place “stat!” And as they ran me down the hall, literally putting a needle in my arm while we were moving, my oxygen-starved brain could only think, “I’m on Emergency.”

After another hour–during which my fiancee was in a state of befuddled concern, because they’d told her I was about to be released and because she’d seen a man with his jaw shot off and watched a door fly open and a man yell, “My name is Snake, and I shot him dead,” while police tried to control him–I was finally released. The doctor said, “We thought we’d lost you.” I asked him what he meant, and he looked at me like I was an imbecile and said, “You couldn’t breathe.” Ohhhhh. I’d assumed that being in the hospital meant that of course they would keep me from dying. I realized then that my condition was so severe that even emergency medical help in a first-world hospital might fail.

I get these attacks occasionally. I’m quicker to go for medical help than I used to be.

Several years ago my college was renovating part of my building complex. The dust–most probably the specific chemicals in the dust–caused a series of severe attacks that my regular medications were barely controlling. One day I stayed home from work and tried to get an appointment with my doctor. Her office didn’t return my calls, and by the time my wife got home I was desperate. I don’t mean concerned or needy, I mean desperate, as in I can’t breathe and that horror of being a child, helpless and dying, was engulfing me. The black pit of despair is a well-coined phrase–at those moments I sense a vast emptiness before me, a snuffing out of my own self, the end, with nothing to follow. Again to the emergency room, and again they resurrect me. And I found a new doctor and my boss moved me to another building for the duration of the construction.

Several years ago I was teaching a summer AP Government class at Georgetown University, where they were constructing several buildings. The dust was bothering me, but it was under control. But one of my students did not have it under control. She ran out of my class one day, and I followed her outside where she sat on a bench struggling to breathe. As I called our office to have them send help, her eyes rolled back, she lost consciousness, and stopped breathing. This scene replayed itself several times over the next week, with repeated trips to the emergency room. On another occasion she had just returned from the emergency room and one of the RAs and I took her to eat at the Georgetown dining hall. As we began to walk out, I noticed that she had suddenly lagged behind. I turned, saw the look of horror in her eyes before they began to roll back, and caught her just as she fell. Yelling for someone to call 911, the RA and I tried to wake her and get her breathing again. We did, the medics arrived, and she went right back to the hospital. Two days later her parents arrived to take her home.

Just before writing this, I was taking a sip of coffee and it went down my windpipe. You probably know the coughing fit that ensues all too well. What you may not be familiar with is a 50 year old man experiencing a rush of terror that strips away all his adult dignity and composure, reducing him to a lost and frightened child on the verge of tears.

Childhood associations are amazingly strong. The sound of a wooden screen door slamming shut invariably brings a visual memory of the cabins at our church camp, and the scent of honeysuckle takes me back to my grandmother’s house. It’s visceral, and I couldn’t shake those associations even if I wanted to. Now imagine that unshakable visceral association is one of horror.

That’s what a mere coughing fit means to me.

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About James Hanley

James Hanley is Associate Professor of Political Science at Adrian College and a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. The views expressed here do not reflect the views of either organization.
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2 Responses to The Horror of Not Breathing

  1. Great timing, Sir. I’m in that stage after an upper-respiratory infection where you think all you do is gasp for breath in between coughing fits. You remind me that it can be far, far worse.

    Which I should know, having raised a couple of asthmatic children.

    However, as a volunteer medic I have to ask: with your history, please tell my you carry at least one [1] epi pen. Because it’s frankly insane to bet your life on somebody who has one showing up before your brain’s three minute emergency supply runs out.

    [1] Patients often need a second dose. And I do mean, “need.”

  2. James Hanley says:

    Well, no, I don’t, and my pulmonolgist hasn’t recommended one. Small contacts with triggering things don’t cause me to go into an instant major attack. I can pet a cat, for example, and the worst that will normally happen is that I’ll forget to wash my hands and end up touching my eyes, causing irritation. Staying in a house overnight with a cat, though, requires that I have my inhalers with me.

    The only time I really would have benefited from immediate use of an epi pen, I think, was once after going out for dinner. A few hours later I broke out in hives that progressed very rapidly. It was presumably caused by some spice in the food, since none of the foods themselves has never caused me problems.

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