Lum: The air that I breathe |

Lum: The air that I breathe

Su Lum

When I was put on supplemental oxygen 15 years ago, I was lucky that I didn’t have any idea that this was a permanent situation. I was so incapacitated by acute respiratory distress syndrome, after nine days intubated and 36 days in St. Mary’s hospital I didn’t have the wits to consider the possible outcomes and wouldn’t have been able to put the words together to ask, “How long, doc?”

Months later, when I gathered enough mind scraps to inquire if I would ever get off oxygen, my doctor said, “I’d be surprised.” “Would you be astonished?” I pushed, but he wasn’t playing the semantics game and iterated, “I’d just be surprised.”

That had me crying all the way back from Grand Junction, not ready to ease on down the road to acceptance just yet.

In 1999, the oxygen options were pretty grim compared with what they are today, for which we can thank the many baby boomers. Take a guy like Richie Cohen, who took a freak nick during an operation and is on oxygen for life. He has things to do, people to see, places to go — he can’t be tied down by ancient equipment, and what do you mean he can’t take it on a plane?

Times have changed, thanks to the Richies among us.

When I started, I could either drag a clumsy canister of compressed oxygen in a little cart (that got caught on everything) or carry a very heavy tank filled with liquid oxygen in a backpack. Only a few years earlier, staying in bed with a huge tank of compressed air beside you was the only option.

Pulse oximeters had just been invented and cost in the neighborhood of $700. Oximeters are the devices you stick your finger into to get a reading of your oxygen and pulse numbers. Now you can get them for less than $50 on the Internet, and every oxygen patient should have one.

Then Helios got invented: sweet, small liquid-oxygen tanks that came with their own backpacks and work great if you’re not on high levels of oxygen. After Helios, dozens more liquid portable systems flew off the drawing board and into the market, just as concentrators were undergoing a similar transformation.

Concentrators are the systems that run off electricity and create oxygen out of thin air. Liquid systems are filled from mother tanks in your home, which, in turn, are filled by your oxygen providers.

Since insurance often doesn’t cover both, decisions have to be made. My choice was liquid oxygen with a backup concentrator that I bought on my own — you can get them quite cheaply refurbished — $200 to $300.

The big difference is that portable liquid equipment is much lighter than the portable concentrators that run off electricity and batteries. Those batteries are heavy. On the other hand, if you travel a lot, the airlines will still only take the portable concentrators, which, in addition to being heavy, are very pricey — $4,000. If you’re in it for the duration, think of it like buying a new car.

Finally, buy the best cannulas you can find — those are the bridles you wear up your nose. I found the best ever at and promise that they can change your life for the better.

Su Lum is a longtime local who thinks we need all the better we can get. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at


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