Just Breathe

Dandelion puffs have overrun the front lawn of a car dealership I drive past. I see it on my way home from the grocery store, the only place I’m allowed to venture these days. Instinctively, I breathe in and blow out as I imagine blowing all the seedlings off their stems and into the air. Like the huff and puff of the Big Bad Wolf.

Yesterday, on a podcast I listened to, a comedian said he takes a deep breath every so often in order to check his lung capacity. To make sure he doesn’t have COVID-19.

Shortness of breath is a symptom of COVID-19, the virus currently gripping our world. We are either unable to breathe because we have the virus or we are holding our breath as we wait to see how this pandemic will alter our society.

The opposite of short is long or tall. But we don’t say long breaths or tall breaths. We say deep breaths. Breathe deeply.

My mother was unable to breathe deeply for the last five years of her life. Her lung capacity progressively decreased as she suffered from the effects of Pulmonary Hypertension, a condition caused by Lupus. My mother’s heart and lungs refused to work together to pump oxygen-rich blood through her veins.

I ask my friend Scott about his father, who was recently hospitalized for COVID-19. Scott begins to tell me about his father’s oxygen liters per minute and then stops himself.

“Not that you know what I’m talking about …”

“Go on,” I say. “I know all about the level of liter flows.”

At home, my mother was tethered to a large oxygen concentrator that resided in her bedroom. You could locate her in the house by following the long, clear plastic tube that snaked from the machine to her nose. When she felt up for going out, she had to worry about the battery life of the portable oxygen concentrator that she wore like a bulky purse hanging off her thin shoulder. In the grocery store, she paused every few minutes to catch her breath.

Catch your breath. Another odd phrase. As if it were possible to grab the air and hold on to it.

“Do You Need a Pulse Oximeter?” is the headline that pops up in my newsfeed. Every morning, my mother sat at the kitchen table and clipped a pulse oximeter to her purple-hued, arthritic fingertip to check her blood oxygen level. She rarely got an accurate reading. Her hands were too cold from poor circulation. Worried about my son’s asthma and COVID-19, I consider trying to locate my mother’s pulse oximeter in the boxes of her things.

It was the flu that killed my immunocompromised mother three years ago, and she caught it from her hairdresser. Or so I believe based on the fact that when I was getting my haircut for my mother’s funeral services, I overheard the salon owner who had cut my mother’s hair the previous week say she had been sick with the flu. Contagion. Now we are all experts on respiratory droplets and fomites and staying home if you are sick. Back then, we didn’t know better. When the anti-lockdown protesters say they want a haircut, I think, “Really?”

The hospital intubated my mother even though her living will indicated she wanted no life savings measures. My father, my sister, and I didn’t stop them. It was so emotionally disturbing to watch her gasp for breath. She’d repeatedly open and close her mouth reminding me of my son’s pet goldfish. When they moved her to the ICU and put her on a ventilator, we breathed a sigh of relief; something a machine now did for her.

On her deathbed, my mother looked fantastic. Thanks to the ventilator, her blood was finally filled with oxygen. Her hands and feet were no longer purple. Her face wasn’t gray but a fleshy pink.

President Trump downplayed New York’s need for ventilators saying, “You go into major hospitals sometimes, and they’ll have two ventilators.” Has he ever been to an ICU? Has he ever heard the warning beep of a pulse oximeter indicating a patient’s oxygen level has dropped critically low? Has he ever sat next to a ventilator, grateful for the machine’s steady pumping?

Do you know they give dying patients morphine because it eases the feeling of shortness of breath? The drug tricks the mind into thinking its body is getting enough air when really it’s not. It seems dishonest. However, I was grateful to the morphine for masking any pain or panic in my mother’s eyes when they took her off the ventilator. Now when I hear stories of Facetime good-byes, I’m grateful that I got to witness my mother’s last breath.

On car rides as children, my siblings and I would hold our breath whenever we passed a graveyard. When I asked my older sister why we did this she said, “Because it’s rude to breathe when other people can’t.” I disagree. Let’s all take a deep breath now. If you can. Pretend you are holding a dandelion puff. Inhale a deep breath and then blow out hard so that the seedlings float out into the air.


Image: “Dandelion blow” by unbekannt270, licensed under CC 2.0.

Elizabeth Jannuzzi
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