In September of 1977 I came down with a cold. I was in the process of moving into a filthy apartment, and my allergy to dust was tested as I cleaned thick layers of it from every shelf, window sill, and counter top.
I stupidly contributed to the lingering cold, because, even though I was an asthmatic, I smoked. I also lived with a cat (I didn’t know at the time that I was developing an allergy to cats).
By October the cold had become so bad I could barely breathe, and on October 17 my mother drove me to the emergency room. I was given shots of epinephrine and aminophyllin.
Even as I left the hospital I knew I would be back. When you’ve had asthma for as long as I have, you know your body well enough to know when the symptoms are not subsiding and when you are in danger of dying.
That same night, before my parents went to bed, I asked them to drive me to the hospital. I was afraid I wouldn’t make it through the night. I was right in believing this asthma attack was dangerous, because, though I didn’t know it at the time, I also had a severe upper respiratory infection. I was admitted that night.
For the first time in my life I feared I would die from an asthma attack. I prayed to God that if he allowed me to awaken in the morning – alive – I would quit smoking.
When I awoke, I heard angels singing and my eyes flashed open in fear. Still unable to speak because my breathing was so labored, I peered around my room to find a woman who claimed to be an evangelist in the bed next to mine.
At this point, I would like to interrupt this article to inform the reader that I consider myself to be a very spiritual person. Though I am not religious, I firmly believe in God, and I try to live my life in accordance with the teachings of Jesus Christ and other religious leaders who live and lived exemplary lives.
The evangelist spoke incessantly and relentlessly over the next week and a half about saving me. Her eagerness to force me into her religion contributed more to my extended asthma attack than it did to my spiritual progression. After a while her voice sounded like nails on a chalkboard.
I turned my back on her and looked outside my window where a giant maple tree presented me with leaves of gold, brown, rust, crimson, and an assortment of other fall colors. I focused on one leaf that sat at the end of a branch barren of all other leaves. Silly as it may sound, I felt a connection to that leaf. “If you can hang on until I get out of here,” I told it as if it could hear me, “I can hang on too.”
Hanging on was difficult though, because twice during my stay, my asthma had become so bad, I was hanging over the edge of the bed struggling to get a hairline of oxygen into my lungs. I’m sure my lips were purple, because every nurse on the floor was in my room.
One nurse rubbed my back and my shoulders. Another caressed my arm while another soothed me and assured me that everything would be OK once they got a hold of the doctor to approve a respiratory treatment. Two other nurses stood by the door.
The respiratory therapist stood by my bed waiting for the doctor’s approval. Nobody could find the doctor. As my anxiety increased so too did my fear of dying. I could see fear in the nurses’ faces too. They thought I was going to die just as much as I did.
When the respiratory therapist was finally given the OK, I didn’t have the lung capacity to breathe in the much needed medicine. I felt like crying in frustration and in fear, but the tears would have to wait. Crying might have killed me.
Finally the medicine started working, but my body wouldn’t wait the required four hours for the next treatment. Two and a half hours later I was struggling again. And again nurses had to find the elusive doctor.
After the attack subsided, the voice from the other bed continued to spout her “you shoulds” over and over. I felt as if I were listening to a sermon that never ended and that, instead of being sent to save me, she was there for the sole purpose of torturing me.
At one point I wrote a letter to the nursing staff (because I was still having so much difficulty breathing that I couldn’t speak) and asked them to PLEASE move her or me so that I could concentrate on getting better. A week and a half into my hospital stay, she left. I never did find out why she was there or what it was about her roommate she felt needed saving.
After my second scare when the nursing staff once again stood around my bed awaiting approval to utilize the breathing apparatus that would save my life, I returned my attention to the maple tree. The leaf clung on and so did I.
I learned a lot about myself during that hospital stay. One important lesson was that I had to admit how stupid I was to begin smoking in the first place. Another lesson was to stay away from things that caused an allergic reaction.
The third very important lesson I learned was not to trust all doctors. It never occurred to me that I might die only because the doctor who was responsible for administering drugs I badly needed didn’t feel it was necessary to inform the staff of his whereabouts.
I also learned (and expected) landlords to clean any apartment I rented before I moved in.
And I learned to never force anybody to believe what I believe. If I want someone to live a spiritual life, I will show my intentions by my actions; not by my words.
On the day I left the hospital, nearly three weeks later, I looked out the window one last time. The beautiful maple tree had lost all of its leaves, except for one, the one I had asked to hang on. God heard my prayers.