Lum: Reviewing the bidding
My friends ask me, “Now what exactly are you having done?” and “How did this all come about?”
As we say in the game of bridge, “Let us review the bidding.” Here’s how it happened.
In January 1999, I went down with a condition called ARDS (adult respiratory distress syndrome) which used to be called “wet lung” during World War I and was then 100 percent fatal. The underlying cause of the respiratory syndrome was emphysema, which was not discovered for months, and I have been on supplemental oxygen 24/7 ever since.
I was intubated for nine days, was in St. Mary’s hospital in Grand Junction for 36 days and tottered out of there weak as a dishrag with years of recovery and a whole different life ahead of me.
They used to call me, “Speedy Gonzales.” Used to.
I was on oxygen at a level of 2LPM (liters per minute) — 4 when exercising — which was quite low. I very gradually got worse and am now on 6LPM/8, which is quite high and extremely inconvenient because the oxygen devices which are light enough for me to carry in a backpack only go up to 4.
The equipment I can use these days is a tank I fill with liquid oxygen at home and drag around in a nasty little cart that gets caught on everything. This tank goes up to 15LPM and will last for two solid hours on 8 so I can —say — go out to dinner, but if I run out or something goes wrong (and I can tell you that there is no end to the number of things that might go wrong), I am in big trouble. This means that wherever I go, I have to have a spare tank ready as well.
Not only do I need more oxygen, it is more of an emergency if I run out.
I subscribe to two respiratory magazines, and it was in these that I first read about a transtracheal procedure where oxygen is delivered directly onto a patient’s lungs through the windpipe, the benefit being that you need only a fraction (generally half) of the amount of oxygen you require with the standard nasal cannulas.
A small slit is cut into the windpipe and a cocktail straw-sized tube inserted, one end of which is connected to your oxygen source and the other end hangs (blowing oxygen) into your trachea.
This sounded like an extreme measure, and I was only peripherally interested until this summer when my friend Hilary ran into a guy she knew who had recently had this procedure done and thought it was great.
At the time I was in the hospital with pneumonia so oxygen alternatives were high on my attention list — it could easily happen that my only course of action would be to move to sea level and it was entirely possible that this could occur so suddenly that I wouldn’t be a participant in the decision.
My new top priority was to meet Jimmy Hunter and see this TTO2, as it is nicknamed, for myself.
Jimmy is a delightful man from Basalt — very active and not one to be restrained. He came over to my house a couple of times, demonstrating how to pull the transtrach tube in and out of the hole in his neck and how to clean it (a twice-daily imperative). He gave me a graphic manufacturer’s DVD with further cleaning instructions. He said I was going to love the TTO2.
I’ve watched that video over and over so I’ll know the process by heart but it still makes me flinch. I hope I will love it, but I’m not betting. What’s for sure is that I am going to do it.
On Monday, I meet my surgeon in Denver; the next day, I get my throat cut. The surgery takes only 15 minutes, but I have to spend the night at Rose Medical so they can keep an eye on me. Over the next few weeks I’ll be busy healing, learning how to clean and change the apparatus, which I’ll no doubt explain in excruciating detail as events unfurl.
It’s reassuring to know that I’m not burning any bridges. If for any reason I hate the whole thing, it is easily reversible. “Just put a Band-Aid over it and go back to your cannula,” one nurse explained it.
Su Lum is a longtime local who is acting as if she were about to travel to Mars. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at email@example.com.
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