Author’s note: Please read this first, for a bit of context.
It starts with a tightness, sometimes with a cough. Sometimes there’s wheezing too.
But the main thing is the tightness, as if there’s a metal cage around your lungs. As if they won’t inflate no matter how much you strain. Nothing gets in. They just won’t do their job, no matter how big the breathing “motions” you attempt.
I immediately, almost instinctively, take a puff of my inhaler. Two puffs. Three… OK, this isn’t working. This doesn’t feel like your “normal” chest tightness which I get a couple times a day and goes away with a puff.
OK, sit down and take a proper puff, hold it in there for a few seconds. Try another one. And another.
“I’m gonna need the nebulizer”, I tell my wife. One doze. This is still not working. This isn’t working. It’s OK, I tell myself. Sometimes it takes some time to take effect. Or maybe I need another doze? I take the second doze but this isn’t going away. It’s getting worse.
A kind of drowning panic sets in. It’s as if you’re moving your arms and legs as fast and hard as you can but you’re still sinking and sinking. You’re drowning.
Breathing is no longer automatic. It’s a deliberate, purposeful act that takes all your energy and concentration. It’s the only thing that matters now. The usual motions of breathing aren’t enough, either. My body reacts almost out of my control as I writhe to get myself into some position, anything that helps me catch a slightly deeper breath.
Finally I tell my wife to take me to the ER. She’s been ready for a while now urging me to go but it’s a difficult choice. The physical exertion of the trip from home to the car to the hospital to the ER is sheer terror when you can’t breathe.
But this isn’t going away. It’s getting worse. What will Ammara do if I pass out? Might as well go when I can still walk.
Ammara tries to steady me. It’s as if I’ve forgotten how to walk. My legs feel strange, as if they weren’t made for walking. I make it to the car. My chest is sore and my lungs and heart almost hurt.
Ammara’s driving crazy. She slows down at a traffic light, almost considering to cross the glaring red signal. I tell her to take it easy. We’ll get there, it’s not more than 5 minutes away anyway.
She asks me if she should call my dad (a doctor). I tell her it’s quite late and I wouldn’t want to alarm him.
We get to the ER and walk in, as the combination of the stress, panic, exertion, and cold midnight air hit me all together. I feel a sharp stabbing pain in my chest now. “Focus, steady. Walk. Concentrate.”
Soon enough I’m lying on a very uncomfortable inclined bed. I hear the hum of the nebulizer above my head as the nurse slips the mask over my face and tightens it. She tells me to calm down and not panic. I want to ask her if she’s ever had an asthma attack, but I can’t talk.
Doctor comes in and checks me out, tells the nurse to ease the asthma first and then take my vitals. “Can’t you see he’s in distress?”
I feel the prick of a needle on my arm but it feels strange, as if I’m losing touch of my body. I feel flushed and my skin feels numb and rubbery, as if it’s not mine, as if it’s more a coat I’m wearing and not something that’s part of me. I start to feel cold and tingly, then just lose focus of my body altogether.
I can only feel my heart beating and my lungs wheezing. As I strain and writhe I’m consoled by the fact that I’m in the hospital now. If I pass out they’ll take care of me. Ammara’s here too. I can feel her hand on my head. This can’t be easy on her.
Am I going to die? Nothing worse than drowning within yourself. But no, they’ll take care of me. But this isn’t working. I’m not feeling better at all. In fact I’m straining and writhing even more. What are they giving me? What are they doing?
As the panic sets in I feel my heart beating faster, just pounding away so hard that I feel it’s going to burst. Less oxygen means it needs to pump more and more to get something, anything, into my body.
I try to say a prayer but only fragments come to me. It’s as if I can see it in my mind’s eye but can’t read it. It’s as if it’s an image in my head but can’t somehow get converted into a thought. There is no thought there. Just breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out.
The hum of the ventilator, the lack of oxygen, and the nurses hovering over me, blend in as I enter a kind of dream world where I don’t know if I’m awake or if I’ve already slipped away. I’m somewhere else now. There is no sense of time here. Perhaps no time at all. Maybe minutes are passing as if they’re hours. Or maybe hours are passing as if they’re minutes.
Somewhere deep down I know I’m still me, I still exist. I try to talk to myself. I try to exercise anything that can show me that I’m still alive, that I still matter. That I still have value as a human being, that I’m more than just a quivering mess, more than a “thing” that has only one aspiration and purpose in existence – to breathe in and breathe out.
That’s all there is to my existence, it seems. Try to breathe. Try to catch a breath.
Who am I? I strain my mind and out comes an incomprehensible jumble, but also comes natural law, liberty, God. Good. That means I’m still here. I’m still human. I’m Iyad, and I have a lot of very important things to say before I give all this up. This mind still has value.
Someone talks to me, asks me if I feel better. I strain to say something but can’t. I don’t know if these are tears in my eyes, or sweat, or more likely condensation from the nebulizer. But I realize now that I can see. The white haze that I was in now looks more like a ceiling with a soft neon light.
I’m starting to feel sleepy and with it comes a strange calm. Do I feel almost normal? I think it’s passing. Yes, I can feel it passing. Every third breath now almost feels normal. A calm washes over me, for just a little a bit, but then comes a flood of pain. My body, numb so far, now starts sending these signals.
My chest feels sore now. Every muscle involved in breathing is now a source of sharp, stabbing pain.
My breathing is getting deeper and easier. That’s all that matters. I can handle a sore body if I can take a full breath. Here it comes again, a full breath. It feels so great I can’t even begin to describe it. A full awesome breath. Never mind anything else, I’m breathing now.
I’m suddenly aware of the mask on my face, blue and rubbery. A nurse hands me a wad of tissues and I wipe my face and eyes. I can see now, yes, clearly too. My head feels light and my body is shivering, my hands trembling, but I can see and breathe and that’s all that matters.
The doctor asks if I’m OK and I nod yes. He looks at Ammara and she starts to weep. He starts to say something to her and she says, “It’s OK, he’s OK now”. She says she’s fine, the shock to her comes after the attack, not during it.
I stumble to my feet and steady myself. Ammara helps me walk to the car. I fall asleep on the way back and can’t remember walking back from the car home. Sweet, sweet sleep…
It’s only in the morning that I realize – that was a four-hour asthma attack, beginning to end. I feel very sore, totally exhausted, as if I’ve run a marathon or spent an entire day at the gym. But it’s an easy, delicious fatigue that beckons sleep.
At least I can breathe. I can handle the fatigue if I can breathe…
* * *
Here’s another “diary of an asthma attack” by a mother who tragically lost her son.