Adventures in Breathing

Ringtails

A month ago today, I returned home from a two week vacation on the island nation of Madagascar (off the southeast coast of Africa), an amazingly beautiful yet harsh land. I promise more on the actual trip in future blog posts. Do you love lemurs as much as I do? (I got pictures to share!)

Tonight, as I sit here near the end of my “self-imposed exile” from the office, I want to write about breathing. Any asthmatics out there? Raise your hands! Try not to wheeze or cough — you might make your co-workers think you’ve brought some horrific disease from overseas to infect them all. Got your rescue inhaler handy at all times? Good.

I’ve been pretty fortunate when it comes to my asthma. I’ve never suffered an acute attack (like you see in movies) and I’ve never landed myself in the hospital because of it. But in the last 15 or so years, I’ve experienced about a half dozen asthma “events” (as my doctor calls them) where, for a number of days, my asthma is not under control. The typical remedy has been a round of prednisone. (Only once before have I needed a second round.) Aside from needing to attend doctors’ appointments, I’ve never before missed work because of it.

Now, in the past four weeks, I’ve used a little more than 100 hours of my sick leave (yep – you read that number right – fortunately I’ve not been sick much these last few years and was able to accumulate a decent balance to draw from). I’ll see the final total when I get back to work on Monday. Browsing the internet, I saw a statistic that said asthma is the fourth leading cause of absenteeism from work for adults. Wow. I have now joined those ranks. Never thought I would. But it’s quite difficult to work when one can’t breathe, isn’t it?

You’re probably asking what this has to do with Madagascar. Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. It was one of the harder trips I’ve taken and I was sick in the middle of the trip although that had more to do with sun, alcohol, and stupidity (more on that next time). Maybe that day’s illness set up my immune system for the later failure. Maybe my subsequent drop in appetite for the rest of the trip had an effect on me.

But there I was, four weeks ago, dropping onto my sofa exhausted and jet-lagged after 36 hours of travel (Antananarivo to Johannesburg to New York to Oakland). I’d spent the majority of the day sitting in La Guardia Airport waiting for my delayed flight west…sneezing and coughing. (Thanks to whichever fellow traveler gave me their cold!) It didn’t seem like such a bad cold at first, but then I was pretty much half-conscious throughout the following day. So much so that when one of my cats accidentally punctured my finger with a claw, I did not wash it. (Here’s a tip: even if you’re half-dead and barely mobile, if you get a cat scratch, WASH THE WOUND.)

You can guess where this is headed. That was late Tuesday/early Wednesday. By Friday, my finger was infected and the seemingly mild cold had morphed into a racking chest cough (the kind that hurts, making you cringe). Oh, and yes, I did attempt to go to work – I managed to get through a couple half days – then went to the doctor. She loaded me up with prednisone, some nice cough syrup, and antibiotics for the finger (tests showed it was just a common form of streptococcus something or other that my cat had gifted me with).

While the finger healed and the worst of the cough eased over the next week, my asthma symptoms did not. Back to the doctors the next Friday. More prednisone, change in asthma medications. And, yes, I did try to go to work. But I have to confess my memory is a little fuzzy. I can’t remember if I made it 4 days the first week and only 1 day the next (or if that was reversed). Hmm. I also discovered that some of my co-workers were very unhappy and complaining to my supervisor. (Somebody is apparently convinced I brought the plague back from Madagascar and was spreading it around the office with my hacking & coughing.) People don’t seem to listen when you say “it’s just asthma.”

So when I ended up back at the doctor’s during the third week, I mentioned those concerns. My doctor had already checked with an infectious disease specialist in the event that I’d picked up “an uncommon bug” – they said there was nothing to worry about. By that time I was on my third antibiotic, so not only was it pointless to test me for anything, I had long ago ceased being potentially contagious. (Fourth antibiotic if you count the anti-malaria medication I was on during the trip.) My lung x-rays were clear and all the blood tests (checking things like my thyroid, kidneys, heart, etc.) all came up average. Nothing that explained the extreme fatigue I still felt and the continued stubbornness of my asthma refusing to be reined in. So…more prednisone and a home nebulizer.

When I floated the idea of another week off work (a whole week of nothing – not even trying to do a half day or anything – just resting and recuperating)…yeah…you guessed it. My supervisor and co-workers were more than enthusiastic. Maybe I should say they were very supportive. (Either they really want me to get better or they are truly tired of listening to me cough.)

With one more day to go, I can say it’s been a successful respite. I’m no longer gasping for air when I climb the stairs, No more wheezing and coughing. I still sometimes run out of air when I’m talking and get a little hoarse, but it’s definitely not as pronounced. I think I’ve finally gotten enough sleep too. I know the cats have certainly enjoyed this week. They’ve spent most of it piled on top of me. (Yes, even the one who scratched me.)

So…when I return to work next Monday, if you hear me cough, “it’s just asthma, people” Sheesh. Let me breathe.

 

 

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