26 January, 2007

The joy of breath

Open your mouth, and breathe. Take in a full breath of air, and hold it a second or two. Let the air swirl in your lungs and caress them. Now let the air out slowly, onto your hand if you like. Notice the heat and moisture that your body invested into that air, now surrendered to the wind.

Now, breathe again.

Breathing is a very satisfying sensation, when I pause to think about it. It's the sort of satisfaction I don't appreciate until I've come down with bronchitis or pneumonia yet again, or when I'm lying still on a bed during an asthma attack, using what little strength remains to force my lungs open and draw air in. An underappreciated pleasure.

I say this, cover my mouth with my elbow, and cough. :-) I had to visit the doctor this week because of a powerful cough that defied over-the-counter dextromethorphan/guaifenesine remedies and attacked more savagely as the days went by. The doctor was a very focused and deliberate man, about my age it seemed. He listened to my lungs, then diagnosed me with mild bronchitis. He prescribed an antibiotic and a much, much more powerful dose of dextromethorphan and guaifenesine. He explained that what one can buy over the counter is "minute" by comparison.

I found his diagnosis of "mild" bronchitis amusing. In some moments, my lungs refuse to breathe back in after a cough. I've frightened my wife by gasping desperately for air, or even failing to gasp at all. I don't remember having anything like that before. If this is only "mild" bronchitis, I've lived a blessed life indeed!

A few years ago, I was visiting family in Italy and suffered the worst asthma attack of my life. The albuterol sulfate didn't work as well as it usually did. I would sit in a room alone and read quietly.

Zia Angelina would come sit with me sometimes. She was always excited to see me. I genuinely appreciated her smile, but she peppered me with questions. If it isn't easy to breathe, it's even less easy to answer the kindly questions of a curious relative, and silence is considered antisocial in southern Italy. I sometimes tried to apologize for my silence by shaking my head, but Zia didn't object much; she would express sympathy, leave, then return a few minutes later. Zia had begun to suffer from Alzheimer's disease, so she never remembered that I was sick, and realized it only from studying my silent smile.

Something similar happened this past week. Before I visited the doctor, I sometimes wanted only to sit quietly. My daughter is only seven months old, so she doesn't understand why her father is suddenly no longer babbling back at her. I could swear that she looked at me with a puzzled expression a few times. My son, by contrast, was clever. "Don't speak, okay?" he would begin. "Just nod or shake your head."

I can't imagine what it must be like for him to see that. When I was a child, my father seemed strong and healthy. I don't remember his ever being sick in my youth, although I'm sure he was. The only man I remember as being unhealthy at all was Nonno Felice. He ailed with a constant cough that worsened, but there was no mystery to it; he smoked like a chimney, and had smoked from the time he was ten. He was strong nevertheless; short, wizened, and bony, but I struggled to keep up with him whenever we went walking through the cobblestoned streets of Gaeta.

One of the curious results of drug regulation in the US is that you can buy an epinephrine inhaler over the counter for about $20, whereas albuterol sulfate—a far safer drug to inhale, and more effective in my experience—is available only by prescription. My doctors mysteriously prescribe it for only one year at any time, so I have to return and obtain a refill. I'm sure there's a reason for that, but it boggles the mind.

According to the drug fact sheet, the side effects of the antibiotic I'm taking can include a variety of unpleasant symptoms, spanning from the mild, like a mysterious, bad taste in the mouth, to the morbid, like hallucinations. I haven't suffered any hallucinations, thank God, but the bad taste in the mouth is awful indeed. I first noticed it while lecturing on the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, and I ran out as soon as possible to drink some water, hoping vainly for relief. It was a strange metallic taste then; today, by contrast, I keep feeling hairs in my mouth. During the morning, I kept sticking my fingers in my mouth, trying to find this hair that had stuck on my tongue, and of course I found nothing. Drinking water didn't help that, either. About the only reason I can think of that I would ever take this medicine is that feeling hair in my mouth is not nearly so bad as gasping for breath.

What fragile creatures we are.

No comments: