Su Lum: Slumming

The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

It’s mind-bending to realize that Sunday was the 14th anniversary of my release from St. Mary’s Hospital, where I had been incarcerated for 36 days with adult respiratory distress syndrome.

For 10 of those days I was on a ventilator and in a drug-induced coma; for the next week, my main entertainment was a windsock that I could just barely see in the corner of my window. When I got moved to another floor, I sure missed that sock.

I was beyond watching TV and more into counting ceiling tiles. I had been dropped into an alien universe where I didn’t understand the language and barely had the strength to brush my hair.

Every morning, my daughters would come in and unwrap me, tsking that I had managed to snarl myself up like a Slinky toy during the night, a tangle of electrodes, oxygen tubing, catheter hose and three IV lines.

Skye and Hillery brought in DVDs of funny movies to cheer me up, but their best present was a little battery-operated cassette player. They put pieces of adhesive tape on the keys – I couldn’t see well enough to tell “Play” from “Stop” – and in the night I would listen to “The Hound of the Baskervilles” over and over, an activity that guaranteed me a private room.

When I was finally given my “walking” (wheelchair) papers, I had become so institutionalized that I got a little bit weepy (steroids) because I was going to miss St. Mary’s corned beef and cabbage St. Patrick’s day dinner.

For more than a month, I had made no decisions other than choosing from their admirable menu, the highlight of my day. I was lifted, turned, prodded, stabbed with needles, wheeled down corridors for X-rays and tests, bathed, wiped and changed. My pillows were adjusted, alarm bells rang when my IV bags ran empty, and the oxygen guys (dressed in bright blue) were in and out, adjusting levels.

Soft fingers felt for my pulse, the permanent oximeter sang its tune, stethoscopes on my chest, the mattress sighed heavily, and the automatic blood pressure machine swelled, squeezed, relaxed. In the middle of every night I was guided onto a scale by the side of the bed. “Please,” said a whisper in my ear. “I can’t go home until I weigh you.”

I didn’t know how much I would miss them, how terrifying it would be to be back home in my own bed without the constant monitoring to assure me that I was still alive and getting better.

I was afraid of falling out of a bed without bars and missed the bars that I used to pull myself onto my side. Oh to be back, looking forward to corned beef and cabbage for dinner.

Now I had to decide everything. What to fix for breakfast? What about the drawer full of unopened bills? When was the next doctor’s appointment? And those pills – hundreds and hundreds of bottles of pills, most of which looked exactly the same, that had to be sorted into weekly containers with not only the days but the times of the days to take the pills.

A milestone was the day I sorted a week of pills without assistance. Yes! I was getting better.

Su Lum is a longtime local who still makes memorial corned beef and cabbage every year. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at