So I spent a bit of time these last weeks going to doctors and such. First of all I was determined to get to the bottom of my breathing problems. Some of you might remember that in the fall of 2008 I had what I thought was an asthma attack. I went to the doctor, and he couldn’t find anything. He did say to come back if it happened again but there never was an attack as severe as that one time. Mostly because I never ran after trains like that again.
So I thought it was all due to me packing on weight, and not exercising much. But still, something was weird with my breathing, and I felt like somebody was sitting on my chest a lot. But then I really was out of shape. My mother suggested that I had high blood pressure. Nope, not the problem.
Then I found that I became breathless immediately when walking around in the cold. So obviously cold air doesn’t agree with me. And there was this feeling of somebody sitting on my chest that was certainly not usual but not really alarming as well. And I thought that I was short of breath because I was so out of shape. And I often cough when I smell something irritating like cigarette smoke, or perfume, or chilies. Nothing unusual there.
And over time I just got used to it. When walking outside for errands in the winter I just walk very, very slowly. I feel like a fool, mind you, overweight with all my bags, walking at a snail’s pace but at least then I didn’t have to be afraid to keel over from lack of breath. And when somebody is smoking on the street I change to the other side. And when somebody is smoking on the train platform (it’s not allowed but people do it anyway), I go to the other end. I got really used to this until finally I watched myself and realized that my life is really defined by these things. Changing sides three times on a five minute walk because there is somebody smoking in front of you is not normal behavior. Walking at a snail’s pace wheezing when you’re only 43 is not normal either.
Then I started jogging. It was almost exactly a year ago. Since I felt so ridiculous about it, and since I knew I can’t stand to exercise in the cold air I started jogging up and down the annex corridor. Yes, it does feel a bit weird, and yes, that corridor has only ten meters but still. You know those overweight people that you see huffing and puffing while being all red in the face? The ones where you can tell that they just decided to take up jogging after spending years on the couch eating potato chips? I knew I would be one of them so I started to run in the safety of my own home. That has the added bonus that I can stop at any time if I don’t feel up to it. That hasn’t happened often but still.
So after a few months of running I was still short of breath when walking up the hill to the grocery store, and I thought, “This is odd. I’m in better shape now than ever, so why is it so hard to breathe?” It isn’t always hard to breathe, mind you, when I’m sitting on the couch in front of the TV everything is peachy. But it was odd.
Then I taught this knitting class, and after one class I had to dash to the train station. There was a student whom I knew to be going in the same direction, and I thought we could walk together. And then she said that she had to walk very slowly because it was cold, and she has exercise induced asthma. I had never heard of something like that before but there are actually people who mostly get their asthma attacks when exercising, or walking uphill, especially in the cold. That was really interesting. Did you know there was a thing like that?
So I went to the library and got some books on asthma. And there it was: an asthma attack can of course be wheezing, and gasping for air but it can be as mild as having a coughing fit (throw a chili pepper in the frying pan and watch me), or the feeling that somebody is sitting on your chest. Duh.
So I went back to my doctor. He did the whole routine again: blood check, cardiogram, ultrasound, spirometry to check whether the lungs work properly, and everything came back normal. Since he is a cardiologist he looked at my heart twice, and everything was fine. I was slowly getting frustrated, there was obviously something wrong but all my tests showed that I’m perfectly healthy.
Then he did a spirometry while doing a stress ECG, and wham. I knew I’d feel lousy but I went for it. A stress ECG is not a pleasant experience. You’re taken to your physical limit so you always feel like you’re going to die even when you’re in good shape. So I sat on that ergometer pedaling away until I had the feeling I couldn’t breathe any longer. One of the weirdest things was that sensation that my muscles, and my heart were perfectly fine. I could have pedaled much harder, and my heart was far from beat. I only started wheezing, and gasping for air. The nurse asked me how I felt, if there was any pressure on my chest, and all I could do was nod vigorously. Then she fetched a doctor to watch over me while I finished the test. It’s an interesting feeling, working out like a maniac, topless, while hooked up to two machines with two people watching you intently because they’re afraid that you’ll have a heart attack or something.
So. Now I officially have asthma. When I told a friend she said, “Only you can manage to be happy about having asthma.” But that’s not the point. I’m not happy about having asthma, I’m happy that I have an official diagnosis with the possibility of treatment instead of the constant feeling that something is wrong. And I never could be entirely sure if I were a hypochondriac or maybe dropping dead the next minute.
After the first elation about the diagnosis and the shiny new inhaler, though, I started realizing that, yes, I now have a chronic illness. And while using the inhaler is great because for the first time in years I could just run without feeling like breathing through a tiny little straw; it doesn’t make the asthma go away. There is no pill to cure it, there is only better days, and worse days.
Still, at least now I know what I’m dealing with. And you know, I told you so the whole time. What I learned from this is this: when you know there is something wrong go to the doctor, and then go again, and then tell him, “I know you didn’t find anything last time but every time I walk uphill I feel like somebody’s sitting on my chest.” and then get some books, and talk to people, and go back to the doctor again. Because if I hadn’t thought that he wouldn’t find anything anyway I could have gotten that diagnosis far earlier.