Su Lum: Slumming
December 28, 2010
For several years my family has tried out Christmas variations. Last year we celebrated it in Aspen in April and nobody was thrilled with that, so this year we decided to travel to Leadville, where my daughter Hillery and her husband Bruce had just moved into the brand new modern house in the woods they finished building this fall.
The plan was for me to drive to Carbondale on Friday morning, from whence my daughter Skye, her husband Steve, my granddaughter Riley (just home from college), my dachshunds Freddie and Nicky, their cockapoo Scout and I would pile into their compact car along with our personal provisions and everyone’s presents, for the two-hour drive to Leadville. This went off without a hitch. The weather could not have been more balmy, without a flake of snow or a patch of ice.
In the excitement of the event, I did not think to keep an eye on my oxygen levels as we climbed over passes to the highest town in the United States. I was traveling with my portable Helios tank, and my oxygen providers had sent ahead a big liquid oxygen tank, which was set up in the cellar where Riley and I would sleep. When we arrived I hooked up to that, and I think I set it on 2, the level I have it on at home. I say, “I think” because the first thing that happens when your oxygen is low is that you get stupid. You don’t get giddy, you don’t get breathless, you just kind of shut down.
So I don’t remember if it was before or after our dinner of yams, rolls, green beans and Heavenly Ham, but I think it was after when I heard what sounded like marching feet on my temples (in the hospital 12 years ago I called it “my heart beating in my head”) and finally got out my oximeter, a small device you put your finger into to get a reading of your oxygen level, and it read 69.
To function properly, your level should be in the 90s, the higher the better. In the 80s you are a pair short of a full house, in the 70s you shouldn’t be behind the wheel and the 60s are hospital alert. I cranked the tank up to 5 and was relieved that my oxygen level shot up to the mid-80s. When you’re really in trouble is when your levels stay dangerously low even when the oxygen is turned up.
Level 5 on liquid oxygen is so high that there was a question of how long the tank would last. It can go on 2 for a week and I was in no condition to do the math. There was also the question, was it me or was something wrong with the equipment? Skye, who had been with me when I had to be evacuated to Grand Junction, called for a flashlight so she could check the level of the tank.
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You’re never too stupid to panic, and the last thing a panicked person wants to hear is, “This tank is empty.”
To shorten a long story, Bruce got on the phone to Salida, where the tank came from, and the guy reassured him that a full tank weighs 165 pounds and an empty tank weighs 65 pounds – those level indicators are often faulty and if at level 5 oxygen was whistling into my head (which it was) it couldn’t, duh, be empty.
Hillery discovered that the little plastic connector (ironically called a “Christmas tree” due to its shape) for my tubing had a crack in it. I had brought a spare but changing it out didn’t make a difference. The problem was me. I hadn’t adjusted my oxygen for this higher base camp and it had been years since I had spent this long in Leadville, which, in retrospect, had always been a problem.
We all calmed down. Skye, Hillery, Riley and I (well, Riley being a Good Sport) wanted to play bridge. We sat at the card table set up in the middle of the cellar and watched the oximeter – “88 … 89 …,” Hillery said. “Crank it up to 6 – 89 … 90 … DEAL!” We started laughing, I made an ass of myself at the game but it was good therapy and I finally held in the low 90s on level 5.
“My hands are blue,” Riley said. “Look at this,” thrusting out her hands, which were indeed bluish, and we were all puzzling over this when the carbon monoxide alarm went off.
Hillery ran upstairs to comfort their parrot through the blitz of beeping, Bruce climbed a high ladder to disengage the alarm, Riley was worried that she might die in the night. Hubbub and more panic.
When silence reigned, Bruce came down to explain very thoroughly why there was no possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning. In addition to building it from the ground up, he had installed all the plumbing, heating and electrical elements of the house and the only reason for putting up the alarms was to get their certificate of occupancy. We were not to worry.
Then, as he started up the stairs, he turned and said, “Did you hear that big bang?” No, we had not. “It was really loud – I thought it came from down here.”
Oxygen panic, blue hands, carbon monoxide panic and now a mysterious big bang? We sat there looking at each other in silence and then burst out laughing, one of those group-laughing fits bordering on hysteria, with gasps, tears, holding our stomachs and rocking in our chairs. We’d get it down to a snuffle and then one of us would start up again with a snort and off we’d go again.
As they say, it’s the best medicine. My oxygen level went up to 94 and the bridge game resumed.
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