Navigating a Power Outage When You’re on an Oxygen Concentrator
My mom, Diana, relied on a plug-in oxygen machine to breathe, and the power was going to be shut off for days.
This was back in the late summer of 2019, when she was still on the lung transplant waitlist, and her region was about to experience a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) by the power company due to high winds and dry conditions.
Residents had a few weeks of warning so they could prepare for being without power for a prolonged period of time. I decided to visit my parents to help them with any potential evacuation effort, to ensure my mom had a constant source of oxygen, and to be ready to run errands so my dad could stay with my mom, whose IPF was worsening. Plus, I’m one of those hippies who jumps at any opportunity to be unplugged for a few days.
When a place like Tahoe National Forest is your home, defensible space is an inherent part of spring. Once the snow melts, the whole town goes into cleanup mode, raking pine needles, clearing shrubs, and limbing trees, among other activities.
Of course, there’s only so much you can do. Just like with any type of risk, we mitigate as much as we can, prepare for the worst, and hope for the best. After the devastating 2017 Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County, in Northern California, the Greater Bay Area got serious about wildfire. Thus, the PSPS.
I called whomever I could to figure out what the hell my mom was supposed to do without power to her breathing machine. The county said there would be charging stations for personal devices. My mom’s “Big Blue” oxygen concentrator ran at around 350 watts — not exactly a handheld device. Plus, it wasn’t portable.
Fortunately, my dad bought a gas-powered generator before they flew off the shelves, and we had a solar-powered battery for backup and transitions. My dad filled each of the car’s gas tanks and a separate container for the generator.
This was serious. My mom’s life depended on us figuring out how to get oxygen into her lungs without grid-tied electricity.
Then, the power went out as planned. The moment it happened, my dad quickly helped my mom onto a portable oxygen tank before he transitioned Big Blue onto the gas generator. Her lungs were at 25% capacity and decreasing by the day. With the portable oxygen tank on full blast, she went through one every half hour. We had seven tanks.
The situation made me wonder if the power company had thought about people like my mom who weren’t in institutions with huge backup generators but still relied on modern technology to survive. It made me mad.
Fortunately, and likely due to my mom’s tenacity, I was raised to persevere even stronger when external circumstances anger me at first. We were prepared: My dad and I had our books, and my mom had her puzzles at the ready. I could cook anything we needed on my parents’ gas stovetop. We were going to survive this PSPS. Heck, we were going to thrive through the PSPS.
Things went fine. My dad and I took turns hiking to the top of a nearby hill to check our phones and let others know we were OK. We meandered on the sidewalk talking to neighbors, one of which generously brought a canister of gas for our generator after he learned about my mom’s situation.
When we were running low, my dad tried siphoning gas from the cars to another canister, but both tanks had anti-siphoning devices, so he ended up driving 30 minutes to San Francisco to fill up (the local shops were out of power, too). The generator blared loud at night, but it kept my mom breathing.
At one point, there was a potential evacuation notice for our region due to a nearby fire. The stress of having to leave your home of 30 years in addition to determining how you’re going to breathe during the car ride to wherever (a shelter?) compounded in the air. I could see my mom going into survival mode. This is a place she has been before.
She grabbed the cash she keeps tucked away and threw it into a bag along with old journals, documents, and photos. She packed a small bag of clothes, knowing her oxygen tanks and machine would take up most of the room in the trunk.
The entire time, she had to move slowly and stop to take breaths to increase her oxygen level. The entire time, my dad and I were there with her, reminding ourselves that that’s all we really needed to take with us.
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