Su Lum: Slumming
December 7, 2011
The first time I traveled with supplemental oxygen, I was a basket case. My doctors told me I probably wouldn’t need oxygen at sea level, which, to me, was tantamount to saying, “Both your legs have been amputated, but you’ll be able to walk in New Jersey.”
It turned out that I could breathe in New Jersey, and this discovery led to a series of cruises where, like Pinocchio, I could turn into a real person, unencumbered by oxygen equipment. On a cruise, sea level is a given.
Meanwhile, thanks to the spate of baby boomers, the airlines reluctantly began to let oxygen passengers carry on their own equipment. This was a huge improvement because oxygen wasn’t available on any of the Aspen to Denver flights, meaning an exhausting drive before I even got started.
After almost 13 years of being on oxygen, the equipment has gotten better and I have grown more knowledgeable, but I have also grown more aware of all the things that can go wrong.
I have had tanks tip over and whoosh out all their air in a white cloud; I have had the tubing disconnect for various reasons; I have – on countless occasions – run out of oxygen for no plausible reason; and, on my last trip from hell, I had to deal with a concentrator that chose that moment to go into death throes.
The concentrator (a machine that makes oxygen out of the air and runs on batteries or electricity) would operate for five minutes and then would start screaming like a car alarm. This is something that passengers, attendants and pilots, not to mention the patient, strongly want to avoid. It is the sort of event that might trigger an emergency landing and being kicked off the plane.
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Luckily the flight attendants found an old oxygen tank with a yellowed World War II-style facemask, but when we got to Denver my concentrator screamed the whole time it was on battery (like getting from one gate to another), our flight to Aspen was canceled, and we dashed – beeping – to the Eagle gate, getting the last two seats. We spent almost an hour on the tarmac with some kind of unexplained “trouble” and then getting de-iced.
Whenever a child screamed or the engine revved, I’d turn the concentrator on, hoping it wouldn’t be noticed, quickly turn it off as soon as it beeped and get three or four minutes of air, and then it would beep again. It did the same on the rental-car ride to Aspen with my friend Hilary at the wheel and two hapless passengers in the back. Nerve-racking doesn’t describe it, and I was never so glad to get home to my regular tether.
So now we’re going again. I discovered this winter that Leadville is out of my range and that I need a higher level of oxygen in Aspen – raising the question: Will I be able to breathe at sea level, or has my condition “chased me downhill”?
I have been testing out various types of new equipment to see how long they last at what levels (very boring and tedious, for hours at a time on a 7-foot leash) and again feel that I am diving into unknown territory, anxiety pills added to the long med list.
By the time you read this, these questions will be answered, and, whatever the answer is, I will be dining in Little Nell style for the next seven days and zipping down the long hallways on my electric scooter, which has speeds of “turtle” and “rabbit.” I prefer rabbiting, with the wind in my hair.
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