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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Looking Back and Moving PHorward: PHighting to Breathe for 10 years: Part 1

It started out slowly, getting out of breath going upstairs or running laps in gym class. They said I had asthma. A year later, I began passing out. They said I had epilepsy even though my "unexplainable losses of consciousness" didn't fit the definition of a seizure. Eventually, I was gasping for air walking from one room to the other. After three years, I was finally correctly diagnosed with PH. I was 19 at the time and was "knocking on death's door."

That was seven years ago. I went from "don't get your hopes up" to embracing my "new normal." Three years later, the disease progressed. In just five months' time, "stable" was replaced with "heart failure" and "borderline kidney failure." Then, after transplant evaluations, I improved to "better than ever." Of the 12 drugs currently on the market, I've been on seven.

On Sept. 6, 2013, I officially achieved "Long-term Survivor" status. I decided to revisit the college campus where I was "knocking on death's door." I wanted to retrace my steps – and the many stopping points along the way – from the psychology building up to my dorm. Everyone else's five-minute walk became my 45+ minute ordeal. I also planned to walk from my dorm to the art building where I passed out for the eighth time. This was finally the turning point that brought us to the PH diagnosis. Now that I am "better than ever before," I wanted it to sink in just how far I have come. I was also hoping to quiet the lingering fear that this stable and, dare I say it, good "breath of fresh air" is all just a temporary, albeit wonderful, dream. It worked.

What follows is part one of the journal entry I wrote as I walked that day:


Long-term survivor TODAY. Weather is perfect.
In the bottom floor lounge of the psychology building writing this. The elevator was my first rest stop. Most days I was able to at least make it that far, still feeling okay. Well, here we go …
My second stop: right outside the front doors. I'm actually SHOCKED right now how short that distance felt. My next stop, a tree in the parking lot across the street, doesn't seem far at all.

I remember leaning on this tree GASPING for air. If I thought about it, I had my phone out ahead of time so that every time I had to stop, I could pretend to be texting. This tree isn't even half way yet, and many times I would be ready to cry already. I did notice a gradual incline as I crossed the street this time.

Crossing the parking lot, which is slightly uphill, was definitely my farthest distance between stopping. It took me under two minutes to reach the big rock across the lot. Felt my heart working a little faster, but I was only S.O.B. for a few seconds. This is the halfway mark. Again, I would be GASPING for air at this point. Still being told I had only "minor" health issues. Looking at these distances now, seven years later, its like, "WOW." They seem so short. It’s hard to believe. This reaction is exactly what I was hoping for. Next, I go around the cafeteria to a picnic table alongside the building. From this point on, it’s all steeply uphill …

The picnic table was gone. I just kept walking. Definitely more of a workout this time. The hill got really steep. Some steps, too. Sitting in front of the dorm now, just long enough to write these few lines, and my heart rate and breathing are already coming back to normal. By this point, I would have been BEYOND EXHAUSTED. My roommate, Kelly, said I was "the soundest sleeper she ever knew." I never realized how completely exhausted I always was by the time I got back to the dorm room.

I can't tell you how many times I felt myself starting to pass out on the way to the English building (uphill from the dorm, a lot of steps into the building). I would tell myself, "Just make it inside. Don't pass out now on the street. More people will see you in the building." We still had no idea why I was "inexplicably losing consciousness." That class is all a blur. I was too worried about staying conscious to care about Shakespeare.

So much is going through my mind. Above all else is the realization that my main thought right now is not: "OH MY GOD, I CAN'T BREATHE!" Or how badly my chest burned with every inhale, like my insides were being torn apart. Or how dizzy I was. Every step, every breath felt like it would be my last.

Check out tomorrow’s blog post to see how my journal entry concludes.

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