Embarrassment Almost Cost Me My Life

This was published on Huffington Post.

asthma can killIt is December 4 and there are probably 40 people in the room at the “welcome cocktail” for the volunteers of our annual convention. I hug an acquaintance, start catching up and then I start coughing. I take a sip of my wine but the mucus in my throat seems to get thicker.

Cough. Cough. Wheeze. Cough. Some people are looking at me. Oh, how embarrassing.

Deciding to catch my breath privately, I leave and head down the hall looking for a ladies’ room while digging for my asthma puffer.

Hmm, there’s a distinct wheeze. It’s OK. One good inhalation of this puffer is all I ever need.

Uh oh. There’s a problem. I can’t inhale now. The wheeze is almost imperceptible as I struggle for breath and only a tiny bit of air manages to enter my lungs. The second attempt doesn’t work either. My puffer is not the problem.

Trying not to panic, I pivot back towards the party because I may need 911. I can’t speak as there is no air. Maybe if I dial my phone and hand it to someone they will understand?

“How long could it take me to die if I don’t get this medication in? This is so stupid! C’mon you damn puffer!” My life is at risk because I was too embarrassed to pull out my puffer in front of everyone and waited too long.

By the third attempt I know that some of the medication made its way to its target. I’m coughing and sputtering. Leaning on the wall, one more puff and I seem to take in a full dose. I am coughing and breathing. Thank God. “I’m going to be OK!”

Just as scary

Ten years ago, an angry young man held me under water at a pool party. As I breathe deeply, memories of how terrified I was while people pulled him off me and I came up for air comes to mind. While I compare these troubling events, it’s obvious this situation is of my own doing, giving me a whole new meaning to “I died of embarrassment.”

I am light-headed and I find chairs near the party entrance. I’m hearing association colleagues greet each other with squeals of joy. Renée is walking in and sees me and I signal her to come to me. I whisper, “Please sit with me.” She puts a comforting hand on my back and tells me she can feel me trembling as I tell her what just happened.

A few moments pass. Feeling silly, I tell Renée I am certain the crisis is over and to please go have fun at the party. As she leaves, my sense of loneliness overtakes me. I wish my husband was here.

“I am letting go of what others might think, before it kills me.”

I decide to go back to my room hoping my roommate Kim is there. I am shakier than I thought as I get off the elevator on my floor. Someone I know well is getting on and presses the party floor. She asks me if I’m okay and I say, “No.” She holds the door open while I tell her what just happened, how afraid I am to be alone. I tell her I’m hoping my roommate is in our room.

She must be in a hurry to get to the party. As the elevator doors close she says, “Feel better, call me if you need anything.” I stare at the closed doors aware that I am alone in the hall.

I carefully walk, leaning a little on the wall for support as I am light-headed. What a long hallway! I know how lucky I am to be alive.

Kim isn’t home. I am alone.

I am shaky and I lay down to call my husband. Kim comes home minutes after I hang up. When I tell her why I left the party, she is immediately concerned pointing out that breathing is important. She is in the health care field and takes this seriously.

She wants to take me to the hospital. Kim makes me tea and scolds me for not calling her. I’m so relieved to have someone not dismiss this out of hand, but I also know the crisis is now over.

I’ve never experienced this before and we discuss what might have caused this dramatic episode. Maybe someone with perfume or cigarette smoke on their clothes? Maybe I have a cold coming on? I strategize my asthma medication for the next couple of days. She tells me she’s going to bug me all weekend and that I only have to say the word and we’re off to the hospital.

Kim keeps her word and checks on me. Often! As I write this, the thought of her concern and care touches me deeply. This is someone I barely knew a year ago. I am truly grateful for the comfort she offered me and the confidence to take better care of myself it has inspired.

I have been reflecting on why I allowed this to happen. Shame and embarrassment were a part of my family dynamics. My mother suffers from anxiety, always worried about what others think and taught this to me. Apparently, I have more things to unlearn. Here are the lessons I bring into 2016:

  1. I will buy a new MedicAlert bracelet and wear it.
  2. When I am having trouble breathing or start to cough, I will pull out my puffer and use it IMMEDIATELY.
  3. I will ask for help. If they can’t help me, I will ask someone else.
  4. I will find other friends like Kim.
  5. I am letting go of what others might think, before it kills me.

Don’t wait until life chokes you unexpectedly. Identify your good friends, increase that circle and learn not to give a hoot about what others think.

Most importantly, make every breath count! Happy New Year.

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