Monday, March 02, 2009

I'll always remember: my first asthma attack.

I do not know the exact date, but I vividly recall the moment. I can see the old nook at the house I grew up in on Laura Ct. I remember our old kitchen table, the light wood grain of the laminate surface. I can see the old carpet, in 70s browns, greens and golds. The woven wood blinds.

My first asthma attack is also one of my last specific, vividly distinct memories of my brother. Frozen, a raspberry in an ice cube, all the more poignant because of its icy sweetness. Special and regrettable.

I was away at college when he died, and I don't remember the true last time I saw him. He died in April; of course I would have seen him at Christmas. I probably also saw him for my birthday in January. But I do not recall any specific details about those two occasions.

Did we say good-bye? Did we say, “I love you”? Probably, we usually do in my family, but since I don’t recall the occasions, I couldn’t say for sure. I don’t remember if there was a time in between January and April when I might have seen him.

But I remember that first asthma attack. I was home from school for the summer. Scott was over for dinner, probably mooching. My sister lived in an apartment, so it was just the four of us for dinner that night.

Asthma was nothing new to my family. Mindy, three years older than I, had suffered from extreme bouts of asthma ever since I can remember. The fear of seeing someone you love struggle to breathe is not something easily forgotten. But living for so many years with even the most terrifying medical conditions will eventually become commonplace. I remember when we were kids and she felt an attack coming on, sometimes she'd ask me to scratch her back, and often it would turn things around. Not always. She was never far from her inhaler and carried it with her everywhere. She still does.

I never had any problems with asthma as a child. I started riding horses when I was ten years old, and handling hay is my asthma trigger. But it took years to discover that because there is some mathematical combination of the amount of pollen and dryness of the air plus the dust in the hay for it to even affect me. My condition is very mild, probably doesn’t even qualify to be called “asthma,” but with my sister’s experiences as my only point of reference, it’s asthma to me.

The day of the attack, I had gone out to take care of my horse and was home eating dinner when I first noticed that awful tightness in my chest. I could feel myself breathing shallowly. My shoulders would rise and draw together with each breath, but when I tried to concentrate and force myself to breathe deeply it frightened me to grasp the fact that I couldn’t.

It was like a slow motion car wreck, the realization that I was having an attack of asthma. It only took a few minutes, but just like seeing it in a commercial. Gasp. Front end crunched in. Deep breath. Airbag deployment. Wheeze. The crash test dummy falls on the airbag and bounces backward. Pant. The crash test dummy lays its head on the airbag and calmly goes to sleep.

I'll always remember it was Scott that broke first.

He was worried, and didn’t know what to do, and had to do something. For a few moments we were all sitting around, listening to me (try to) breathe, and he was the one that reached his limit first. So he called Mindy (that is to say, Mindy the Asthma Expert) to ask if I could use her inhaler. We all thought it was silly to call her—what on earth would she do?! I remember she told him I should go to the hospital, but by that point it was pretty obvious and we had figured it out for ourselves. In my memory the evening lasted forever, but I know left the meal unfinished to go to the hospital.

I've only had a few asthma flare ups since then, but I'll always remember that attack, that old kitchen table, those woven wood blinds. And Scott.

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