Lum: A comedy of unexpected disasters |

Lum: A comedy of unexpected disasters

Su Lum

Sweet, visiting nurses came to see me after I was first felled by pneumonia, now almost a year ago. One of them said they had an extra shower chair if I would like to try it. Of course I was all, “I don’t need no stinkin’ shower chair,” but she brought it over, I tried it, and I love my shower chair.

My friends ask how things can keep going so wrong with my new transtracheal oxygen system, and I can only say that it takes getting used to and learning by experience.

The other day I was sitting on my shower chair, basking in the water, and everything was going fine until I realized that my leather necklace (made by my daughter, my favorite of many) had stretched, my oxygen catheter was hanging out of my neck and I couldn’t push it back in.

First thing, keep your cool. First thing, get out of the tub and put on a cannula so you are getting oxygen through your nose. Once you’ve done that, you can take your time figuring things out — without oxygen, forget about figuring out anything.

Luckily I had a spare catheter ready to go. My catheter necklaces have magnets for clasps; they hang on the mirror of the medicine cabinet like a display of abstract crucifixes, waiting for their chance to snap themselves on a passing bracelet or a faucet or each other, pulling themselves into a knotted clump.

The bath was a steam room. Since I wasn’t expecting to be changing catheters, I didn’t have my reading glasses to see close up. I went into my office to get the glasses, picked up the wrong ones, went back for the right ones, wiped down the mirrors and proceeded to put in a new catheter while the magnets snapped and grabbed at everything like mad little crabs.

The upshot of this operation was that the magnetized ends of the necklace were so deeply entangled and intertwined with the cannula that you would think I had been playing double Dutch jump rope with the cannula and my trach tubing.

Keeping one’s cool being a finite thing, I stamped into the kitchen, took the shears and cut off the cannula.

And that’s how what should have been a tranquil afternoon turned into a bleeding nightmare. Who would know until it happened that my favorite soft-leather thong necklace would stretch in the water? Don’t cows stand in the rain?

A piece of equipment I know to be unreliable is the bubbling humidifier, a plastic device containing distilled water, which is attached between the oxygen tank and the connecting tubing.

Since I’m now getting oxygen directly into my trachea, bypassing what my doctor calls “nature’s humidifier — the sinuses,” I am supposed to keep a bubbler on all the time unless I am using a portable unit.

I explained to my friend Hilary, who is first in charge of equipment, that the bubblers are devious and cannot be trusted. Twist their tops on just a hair askew, and they will — despite bubbling merrily — produce very little or often no oxygen at all. Of all my equipment failures over the past 17 years, the bubbler was guilty of most of them.

Hilary, no doubt thinking this was just another iteration of my inability to cope with something as simple as screwing on a lid, wisely did not roll her eyes.

A couple of mornings ago, I woke up feeling bad. I got up and went to the john, returned and felt even worse. Do not ask me how I made it to the bathroom or where I found enough IQ points in my state of severe mental impairment to check my oximeter, but I did, and the reading was 52, which is very, very low.

I keep a canister of compressed oxygen right by the head of my bed, ready to go with a cannula and regulator attached, requiring just a twist of its plastic wrench. I kept my cool. I fired it up as far as it would go, put on the cannula and breathed my way back to the reality of the 90s on the meter.

What later came out in the wash was that Hilary had come in from the shed a half-hour earlier, saw that my water level was getting low and filled the bubbler while I was sleeping. The bubbler had seized the opportunity to show her its true colors, turning off my oxygen while still bubbling madly, pretending that everything was A-OK, while I was gradually sinking down to 52.

The best part of this story is that I didn’t pass out and I am hoping that the reason I did pass out on two other occasions was that I was sick and my resistance is low. My big fear is of being disconnected and not being able to rectify it before fainting, but maybe it is not as bad as I thought.

Hilary is now thoroughly disillusioned with the bubblers.

The final irony is that I sleep on liquid oxygen in case of power failures, but it’s the liquid that keeps trying to kill me.

Su Lum is a longtime local who becomes fatalistic about it all. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at