Take My Breath Away:When a 40-Year-Old "Cat Lady" is Diagnosed with Asthma
The first week in August I quit smoking after twenty years. I quit without any pills, patches, gum, hypnosis, self-help/"motivational" tapes, or gradual cutting-down. One day I was a smoker, and the next day I wasn't. It was as simple as that.
I had read in numerous places that--aside from the usual miseries of withdrawal and intense nicotine cravings that were to be expected, it wasn't unusual for quitters to find that it actually became harder for them to breathe in the immediate aftermath of having quit, the lungs needing some time to clean out the years of accumulated gunk (I believe that's the scientific name for it) before returning to normal. So when I started feeling congested--and when that feeling of congestion became heavier and more constant as the days went by--I wasn't initially alarmed.
And then one night a few weeks ago, it was as if somebody had thrown an airtight sack over my head. I could breathe--just barely--but each breath was labored and sounded as if a family of mice had taken up residence in my chest. Homer could hear it and glued himself anxiously to my lap, snarling at Laurence when he tried to help me get Homer up so I could stand. It was bad. How bad was it? you ask? So bad that when we finally decided to go to the nearest emergency room, located a mere three blocks from our apartment, we had to take a cab.
Well, on the plus side, when you go to the emergency room and tell them you can't breathe, you get to bypass all that pesky waiting around business. Before I knew it, I was strapped to all kinds of machines while doctors and nurses attacked me with various implements and instructions. Apparently my blood pressure was low and my pulse was high, because they pretty much immediately stripped me to the waist and hooked me up to an EKG to make sure I wasn't having a heart attack. (That I didn't end up having a heart attack once the terrifying possibility was presented to me is, I think, a testament to mind-over-matter!) Within a minute or so I was sucking on a type of machine called a nebulizer (undoubtedly familiar to my fellow asthmatics out there), which delivered oxygen and medicine directly to my lungs--and thank the lord for that. The relief was almost immediate.
They kept me there for a few hours, breathing through the nebulizer. At one point the doctor came over to check my pulse and chat about asthma--which was what they were tentatively diagnosing me with. Apparently, cigarette smoking can actually inhibit asthma, which means that many long-time smokers don't even know they're asthmatic until they quit smoking and suddenly have trouble breathing.
This is what we in the literary business refer to as "irony."
Of course, the first thing that was recommended by my ER doc was a complete physical and a battery of tests by my own physician. Still, she talked to me about some of the things I should do to make my home more "asthmatic-friendly." And that's when she landed the knockout punch.
"Do you have cats?" she asked.
I held up three fingers.
The doctor made a "tough luck" face. "That'll probably have to change."
I was still breathing through a tube and couldn't speak. But, I'm ashamed to admit, my eyes immediately filled up with tears and I started shaking my head vigorously from side to side, like a recalcitrant three-year-old. The machine I was hooked up to that was measuring my pulse began to beep. I squeezed Laurence's hand, which prompted him to tell the doctor, "You don't understand--"
"You don't understand," she interrupted. "But I can show you pictures of what happens to the lungs of asthmatics over time when they don't get rid of their pets."
Before you judge me for what happened next, please keep in mind that I was going through a fairly traumatic experience already. Generally I pride myself on my cool, level-headed judgment and ability to handle even the most upsetting of events rationally and constructively.
But when I heard the words "get rid of" in reference to Homer, I immediately burst into tears and cried so hard that I pretty much cried myself straight into another asthma attack. Laurence and I spent a lot of time at the hospital that night.
Well, I'll spare you the blow-by-blow of the last few weeks since then. There have been a few more hospital visits, doctor's visits, scads of tests, and myriad lifestyle changes. I am committed to sending Homer nowhere. If it really and truly comes down to it and I simply can't share a home with animals, I will re-home the kittens (or, rather, allow the organization I adopted them from to re-home them--with, of course, all the help I can offer). I don't believe it will come to that. I feel that way for reasons that I'll get to in a moment. But unless somebody can convince me that I will literally become a complete physical burden on my husband by keeping Homer with me, I'm not re-homing a 15-year-old blind cat who's lived with me since he was four weeks old, and who has become as essential a chunk of my heart as Homer has. I don't think it's being over-dramatic to say that trying to separate Homer from me at this point in his life would kill him, and I won't do it.
But--after a few touch-and-go weeks--I'm pleased to say that things have greatly improved. I'm now under the care of a wonderful internist, who has offered much measured and practical advice (in addition to the, y'know, really good prescription drugs). My chest scans and x-rays are clear, my lung capacity is actually above average for a woman of my age and height (particularly shocking in light of all the smoking and asthma), and all my other exams, blood tests, etc. have revealed me to be in what my doctor calls "excellent physical health."
In the meantime, things have changed quite a bit around here. I have replaced all our bedding--mattress included (actually, we've been wanting a new one anyway). Everything is new, hypoallergenic, and now covered in special cases and coverings designed to keep me from breathing in dust and dust-mites. We have done some major housecleaning and gotten rid of all the dust collectors we can bear to part with. We have new HEPA filters for our air conditioning. I have cut certain foods--dairy, eggs, shrimp--almost entirely from my diet and started bulking way up on others, like onions, garlic (lucky Laurence!), apples, salmon and tuna, and spinach. I've been walking five miles a day. I've also started working out again, although it's a bit dispiriting when I have to quit after a mere 25 minutes because my chest is getting too tight. But I'll get where I want to be. I'm committed to losing the twenty (eep!) pounds I started gaining eight years ago when I began writing books, because I'm told that weight loss can have a dramatic effect on asthma.
I've been taking steroids, which I'm starting to wean off of now. This is a good thing, because the steroids have made me so jittery and temperamental that living with me hasn't always been easy these past weeks. I'm optimistic that the improvements I've been seeing will continue even once I'm off the meds. My doctor thinks that, if things keep going in this direction, I won't need to think about "getting rid of" my cats. He bases this on the fact that being near the cats doesn't make me feel any worse, while being away from the cats doesn't make me feel any better (something I tried explaining to more than a few ER docs while waiting for my initial doctor's appointment). Whereas putting my head on an old pillow--as I inadvertently did the other night--brings immediate and uncomfortable consequences.
Homer (who is now officially terrified every time I leave the apartment--I really, really do think he senses something of what's been going on) sleeps right next to my head every night. And every morning I wake up with a clear chest and a clear head, ready to tackle the next thing on my "to do" list.
I know I have a fair number of younger readers, so I'll end with this: The moral of the story, kids, is NEVER START SMOKING! Not unless you want some harried ER doctor to inform you someday that you can breathe or you can live with cats, but you can't do both.