Su Lum: Slumming
June 29, 2011
Last week, after finishing up the “burst” of steroids that I had been taking because my oxygen levels were less than optimum, I crashed big time. It felt as if I were coming down with the flu, body all aching and wracked with pain as the song goes, plus those fevery chills that used to be called ague, oxygen numbers in the toilet, raising the dread of the recurrence of the ARDS (adult respiratory distress syndrome) that felled me 12 years ago.
On Tuesday I had to go to Aspen Valley Hospital for a vitamin B-12 shot, a blood test having revealed that I’m low on that – whatever it is – and have to have shots for the rest of my life and Medicare might not cover it. The joys of aging keep on coming and I was also found to be low on iron, another pill in the med box, another addition to the medical tab.
At AVH they were concerned that my oxygen level was 82 when it is supposed to be 90 or higher, but I thought that if I could just get home and settled I could crank the oxygen up and would be OK.
It’s referred to “shortness of breath,” but I never feel breathless – when my oxygen gets low I just get more and more stupid and kind of disengaged.
The first thing I did when I got home was to get out the manual for my Sequal Eclipse, an oxygen concentrator that plugs into the wall and manufactures oxygen out of thin air. The problem with the Sequal is that its normal highest setting is three (which, with this particular machine, is actually more like two, a fairly low level of air). I knew that there was a way to get it up to five by putting it on a very short tether and setting it to pulse (meaning that it puffs on the inhale) and, after dragging the machine into my bedroom and barking and whacking my delicate shins with the electric cord and adapters (OW, OW, OW), actually got it to work on five and my oxygen levels began to rise.
Relief was short-lived. After four minutes the Sequal began beeping and screaming as it had petulantly done in the airports and on the planes the last time I left town. It had since been sent off for repairs, but I hadn’t taken the time to fully check it out and now the situation was starting to look like trouble.
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I called my oxygen people to request back-up equipment when they came on Thursday, but I thought I could manage until then. I had quite a few bottles of compressed oxygen but my two big tanks of liquid oxygen were perilously low. The Sequal was doing fine on level three (really two) and I thought (such as I was thinking) that if I could just lie very quietly I’d be OK.
After an hour I was still hovering between 83 and 85, which a lot of people live with all the time (but shouldn’t play poker or enter quiz shows). My friend Jack came over, took one look and opined, “Hospital.” To me, hospital means Flight For Life, St. Mary’s, intubation and possibly more ominous outcomes, so we compromised – Jack called the hospital to ask for their advice, and they advised him to call my oxygen providers (PSA).
I need to clarify that the real problem was that a nasty respiratory thing is going around and that’s why I went down hill. I was using more oxygen than usual, causing me to get low on my liquid tanks, and it was entirely coincidental that the Sequal concentrator began to expire just when I needed it the most. And it was entirely my fault that I had ended up with a whole passel of small tanks, which only last for an hour or two, rather than the larger E tanks which last for four hours. I call my spare bedroom “the oxygen room” and it is full of tanks, but I hardly ever use them and lost track of their capacities.
AVH had alerted my doctor of possible problems, his office had followed up and urged me to be proactive, but you can lead an oxygen-deprived optimist to solutions but you can’t make her think.
At that point, the option was to limp through the night on the little bitty tanks, changing them every one or two hours, a bit much to ask of friends and I was too stupid to monitor it myself.
So it was that Bill, my sweet Oxygen Man from PSA, had to make an unexpected trip that night from New Castle to Rifle to pick up a humping big industrial strength concentrator and bring it to Aspen. It’s hard to be a patient (in both senses of the word) and even worse to be a bad patient. I mean, like, DUH, I should have realized that I was in trouble early that afternoon. I should have checked out the Sequal weeks earlier. Shoulda, coulda, didn’t, but it was so great to turn up that concentrator and feel that cool, oxygenated air.
You put your finger into a hand-held oximiter (now cheap on the Internet and used regularly by athletes – Google “pulse oximiter”) and it tells you what your oxygen level is. Crank up the oxygen and your numbers go up as if by magic: 79 (bad), 83, 87, 92 (good). What a difference a little bit of gas makes.
Disaster was averted. I now have a teeming supply of oxygen, am on heavy-duty antibiotics (those horse sized augmentin pills – cut them in half and smear them with butter so you won’t need a Heimlich maneuver), more steroids (zing) and am feeling a lot better.
But the whole episode reminded me how truly, deeply stupid you become when you’re out of oxygen.