Keep breathing

A reporter’s bad lungs provides new perspective on the flu season

I was 3 years old when the ambulance arrived at our little duplex to take my dad to the hospital. He had pneumonia. It’s the first time I remember that wheezing, wet sound that Dad would get as he tried to breathe. Toward the end of his life, when chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma were tag-teaming him, he’d sleep sitting up in his recliner so his own lungs wouldn’t drown him.

It was pneumonia that sent him to the hospital for the last time, and in conjunction with a stroke, killed him.

Some of us have just got bad lungs. I inherited a really crappy pair from my dad. I first had pneumonia at 6, and have had pneumonia and bronchitis more times than I’d care to count. My asthma is so bad that a whiff of someone’s expensive perfume, a few misplaced puffs from someone’s cigarette or just laughing too hard can send me scrambling for my inhaler.

That’s why the flu worries me.

For years, I’d get the flu and then be sick for a month or two with either bronchitis or pneumonia.

One really bad time, I coughed so hard that I broke a rib.

I’d get pleurisy every time, too. That’s inflamed lung tissue that, in my case, rubbed against my rib cage with a sharp pain that peaked every time I drew a breath. Then there would be a fever, which tends to provide extremely realistic if more than a little frightening dreams—or hallucinations. And the fever brings along a dumbshit with a jackhammer who goes after my frontal lobe, while his compatriots batter my muscles with supersized meat tenderizers.

But pneumonia really hits the lungs. If the congestion of a cold or the flu is like thick grass in your breathing machines, pneumonia is a rain forest. It’s as if my chest were soil where something powerfully alive has taken hold—bougainvillea, mangroves, mossy ground cover and strangling vines—it’s all growing. Drawing a breath is unleashing those exotic noises: a whistling bird, a purring cat.

Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as pretty as all that. And when it gets bad enough, I feel like I’m drowning.

I haven’t had pneumonia in almost 10 years, since I first started regularly getting a flu vaccination. I’ve also been vaccinated for pneumonia.

Sometimes, at the end of the influenza season, when the antibodies from my vaccine are starting to weaken, I’ll pick up a mild case of the seasonal flu. What my co-workers would call a “cold” puts me out for a week and requires a boost of some of the steroids I use to breathe on a regular basis.

So if you happen to see someone shaking their finger at you when you don’t cover your sneeze, gently suggesting that you should use the hand sanitizer or yelling at you to go home until you’re healthy—it’s me.

I’m just trying to stay out of the hospital and keep breathing.