Testing Out a New Lung at High Elevations
The moment my parents, Diana and Jack, were in the clear two weeks after their second COVID-19 vaccine, they hopped on a plane to see their three grandchildren in Illinois. This was about a month shy of my mom’s one-year lung transplant anniversary.
Their trip was everything they had hoped for — grubby fingers, hugs, and screeches from a 4-year-old, a 2-year-old, and a newborn — but it did not go without its bumps in the road.
This was last April, at the point when we thought things were starting to go back to normal. People were not wearing masks on the bus to the airport, and my mom started panicking, which subsequently started dropping her oxygen level.
We all have those things we fear that make us lose our breath just thinking about them. Those unlikely events in which we obsess over the worst-case scenario. And the moment we start thinking about it, the thought snowballs from our brains to our throats to a pit way deep in our stomachs where it rots until the risk of our worst fears coming true has passed.
Sometimes, we’re not really sure what that fear is — can’t name it, can’t put our finger on it — but it stops our breath all the same. I know this feeling intimately, and I know my mom knows it, too.
Once on the airplane, my mom felt the panic seep in again — shortness of breath, a tightening in the chest. But this time, she had nowhere to go, so she wouldn’t let herself look at her pulse oximeter. She didn’t want to know the truth of how low her oxygen was getting on the plane because she had no backup plan available.
A week later, my parents visited my home for the first time in three years. The doctors were uncertain if staying at an altitude of 6,000 feet would affect my mom’s ability to breathe. She would have to go for it and see what happened.
I’m not the kind of daughter who wants to hang out with her parents all the time; I need my space. But after a year of not seeing them in person, I finally really felt what it was like to miss my mom and dad. Being with them during Mother’s Day weekend was a huge comfort and relief, like a cold shower on a blazing hot day.
We didn’t plan much — a few walks here, dinners out there. At night, though, my mom’s oxygen dropped to unprecedented levels post-lung transplant — levels that, as my mom noted, made her head feel like an expanding balloon.
What was she to do? She was off of oxygen, detached, unplugged, and breathing on her own. She had no backup plan for lower-than-normal levels because she had a new lung for that. Her tanks and battery-powered, portable oxygen concentrator had been taken away for someone else to use. So, she opened the windows and sucked in as much cool mountain air as she could.
Would you go back to visit a place that choked you for just being there? I wonder if her new lung is capable of adapting to 6,000 feet above the ocean on its own. She told me her doctors said to give it another try and see what happens, so that’s what we’re going to do.
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