Life Writing

It’s a Lung Story

Photo by Kables CC BY
Photo by Kables CC BY

Biomechanically, I am not the man I was when last I typed at this laptop. I sit before you now with only one pleura. Technically, half of me is breathing like an elephant.

To drop the epic wordage for a moment, I’ve just come back from a stay in hospital after receiving a pleurectomy, an operation which basically consists of removing the lung’s protective outer-layer and gluing your lung to your chest wall. This was sadly a necessary step after falling prey to a second collapsed lung.

So how to summarise the whole experience? I’m now short a pleura, I have 5 new scars and I partially breathe like an elephant.

Oh yeah, the elephant boast. So most mammals (humans included) breathe by expanding their ribcage and lowering their diaphragm, creating a vaccuum in the sealed chest cavity. This vaccuum causes your lungs to expand and inhale air to fill the space that your expanded torso has created. The space in between the lung and the chest wall is known as the “pleural cavity”, and basically gives your lungs some leeway when it comes to expansion. Elephants are unique in that they don’t have a pleural cavity – their lungs are fixed to the insides of their chest, meaning that their breathing mechanism doesn’t rely on vacuum: their lungs expand because they are attached to the expanding chest walls. This allows for greater sucking power (too easy, move along) and is why they are the only mammals who can breathe submerged.

The doctors essentially obliterated my pleural cavity by removing my pleura, roughing up the outside of my lung, and letting the blood and inflamation create a seal between my lung and my chest wall. My lung now expands because it’s stuck to my chest, just like an elephant’s.

If anyone has any French elephant jokes, you will never get a better chance.

So my hospital stay started off pretty banally – I went in the day before my op and was subjected to the usual tests: blood, xray, ECG, MRSA. During admission, the nurse put a paper bracelet around my wrist with my name, consultant, date of birth and a barcode printed on it.

“This is so we can ID you,” she said.

She then took my other wrist and wrapped an identical bracelet around it.

“Is that in case I lose an arm?” I joked.
“It’s in case you get an IV, and we need to cut off your bracelet.”

Which is the type of sensible, pragmatic answer that makes you feel like a nob for ever joking about the topic at hand. The kind of answer where the only valid response is to nod dumbly and make a mental note to re-evaluate your life.

The next morning was similarly uneventful. I woke up with the Zen serenity one can only feel when everything is now out of their hands, and the pre-op soporific was unnecessary. I was wheeled down to the theatre and moved onto the operating table, where an oxygen mask was placed over my face. There was something incredibly strange about seeing half a dozen people gathered around, watching, waiting for me to fall asleep so they could get on with their jobs. It felt sort of humbling to realise that for the next couple of hours, the lives of these 6 people would revolve entirely around me and my well-being. I stared up at the UFO-dish operating lights and felt my limbs tingle. The anaesthetist was speaking.

“You might feel something cold on the back of your hand. That’s the anaesthetic. It’ll feel quite pleasant, like a pint of beer.” He paused, “Then the rest of the keg.”

I laughed “Oh good. Thought you were calling me a lightweight.”

The last thing I remember is feeling my limbs go numb, looking up at the anaesthetist and mumbling “This is interesting.”

The transition from lying dopily on the operating table and lying dopily in post-op felt like a movie fade – I knew, logically, that time had passed, but I hadn’t felt it. It’s the sort of cut that I’d only previously experienced after blunt head trauma. I felt fresh as a daisy, and asked the nurse sitting at my bedside what time it was. We chatted for about 20 minutes before I realised that I had been asking this guy the same questions over and over, and he was casually answering them the same way every time.

I asked him how long I’d been awake and he told me “About an hour.”

What? But I’d only woken up 20 minutes ago! I then got a couple of random memories of discussing meditation and other random topics; scenes which I had no recollection of having ever experienced, but which sat there in my mind like disgarded puzzle pieces. The memories were set in the same room that I was currently in, and featured this guy, so I just had to accept that since I’d never been in this room before, those moments must have occurred well, moments ago. I asked him if I’d been talking total shite and he gave me a charitable “Nahh…”

The rest of the day passed in a series of fade-in/fade-out moments as various people managed to snatch conversations in between my blackouts. The doctor said everything had gone well, and not at all disturbingly, that my lungs were nice and pink. I remember a lot of eating. I found myself thinking “That was a piece of piss”. I couldn’t believe how well I was handling it.

“I am a fucking Spartan.”

The next morning, I discovered the source of all my power was hanging from a dripstand to the left of my bed. I woke up at 6AM in agony, wondering what had happened overnight to cause me so much pain. A nurse pointed out that I hadn’t self-administered any morphine overnight. I beeped a dose and felt some of the pain ease away. Three minutes later, when I was allowed another dose, I beeped it. Three minutes after that, I wrote myself another prescription. This went on until eventually the pain disappeared, and my brain melted.

I spent days swept up in the haze of a morphine high. Confined to my bed, I dozed and dreamed, only able to observe placidly as my mind unspooled itself and leaked out my ears. Battered by stroke after stroke of genius, I struggled desperately to keep track. I resorted to memorisation techniques to store all my ideas – using the Loci method, I placed idea-tableaus around a mental reconstruction of my house. In the hallway was a frozen game of Execution Bingo. In the living room, a ninja cutting a man’s head off with the blade of his hand.

I eventually discovered I could force hallucinations. I closed my eyes and thought “Falling from the sky” and wham-

I was above the clouds, unsupported, clothes buffeted, face blasted by the force of the wind as I hurtled towards the ground. I took a moment to observe the world spread out below me like a map, stretching into my periphery, and then-


A nurse walked in cheerily, bringing in cereal. I looked at my watch and realised it was 8AM of the same day. It had only been two hours since I’d woken up in pain. I clambered out of bed and dumped myself into a chair, making a mental note to just put up with the post-op pain. I caught the nurse’s worried look before she said “We’ll get you off that morphine today, eh?” and all I could reply was “Thank God.”

My body spent the rest of the day punishing me for that morning’s abuse. I went from supernova to white dwarf as my brain was crushed to the size of a grape. System-wide shutdown. Activate secondary power units. Disable all non-essential functionality. I sat in a chair and felt as if my universe had collapsed in on itself. It was horrible. To top it off, I’d noticed earlier that sitting or standing up brought on terrible waves of nausea. And so, slumped upright in a chair, I felt the stirrings of a revolution in my stomach.

By 11AM I had closed myself off to the outside world, battling nausea, waves of heat and cold, and the unsettling feeling that my brain was about to collapse into a singularity. It was during this period of ill withdrawal that my replacement doctor paid me a visit (my original, excellent, consultant had left after my operation), accompanied by the usual awed entourage of nurses and trainees. One of the nurses warned him “He’s feeling quite sick at the momen-” but was cut off with a hand gesture.

“How are you, young man?” he asked me.

Curled in my chair, my face in a paper-maché bowl, I managed,

“Feeling a bit ill actually.”

Then withdrew into my shell. The nurse asked if I could get a few minutes to recompose myself, but again he waved his hand at her and asked me how the pain was. I could still feel the morphine numbness. I told him it was alright.

“Alright?” he repeated.
“Uh, yeah. Alright.”

He turned to the nurse and said “He’s not in pain, he does not need painkillers” which brought me partially out of my stupor.

“Well, the pain’s alright because of the morph-”

“Take him off the morphine, nurse,” he said, and pointed decisively at nobody in particular. “It is this drug which makes you ill, young man,” he said, his face inches from mine.

“Actually I felt ill last time I stood u-”
“We will take you off this drug, and we will take your drain out.”

With that, he straightened up and hurried out, obviously eager to beat the new personal record he’d just set for number of sentences interrupted in one sitting. At the door, as an extra kick in the nads, he ordered that I be given daily anti-clotting injections in the stomach.

On the second day after my operation, I was visited by the third and strangest doctor. Short, agitated and clambering for an air of gravitas, he paced up and down my room as he listened to a summary from the nurse. Insanely, he refused to acknowledge that I was sitting in the same room, instead posing his questions to the nurse, who found herself having to pirhouette awkwardly between myself and the good doctor, asking me his questions and relaying my answers. It was quite possibly the maddest situation I’ve ever found myself in – I thought I was in a Marx Brothers sketch.

“Wassat, Harpo? Wassa problem? Wassup with this guy? Alright alright, two words. First word. Hands. Smackin’ ya hands. Slappin’ ya hands. Clappin’. Clappin’? Clap? Lottsa clappin’. Claps? Claps! Alright second word, jacket. Chest. Breathin’. Wheezin’. Rhymes with tongue. Claps… Claps lung! He gotta collapsed lung?”

Eventually this psychotic panto ended (or rather, changed venues) and I was left with a directive to stay in hospital another night. An anonymous author had written on my file “Leaving on Sunday” which had thrown the flustured doc completely, causing him to ask wildly,

“But that is tomorrow, why is he not leaving today? Who has written this? Why did they say tomorrow and not today?”

The unnamed scribe had unfortunately left no indication of their reasoning, and rather than apply his own (God forbid), my manic doctor decided to just go with it and kept me in another night for no discernible reason. The next day, I packed up my things, gave the nurses a sketch I’d drawn, and left.

And that, rather lamely, is that.

I feel I’ve probably protrayed my stay rather disingenously, implying the place was run by madmen and incompetents, which couldn’t be further from the truth. The fact is that I had an excellent consultant and surgeon, an incredibly competent anaesthetist, and for the most part, lovely nursing staff. It’s testament to all their skills that 72 hours after surgery I was back home in only the slightest pain. If anyone has the misfortune of needing a hospital stay but the fortune of being able to choose where to go, I’d highly recommend the Golden Jubilee.

And if you’re nice to the nurses, you get extra toast in the evenings.


Life Writing

Lead Balloon

Photo by groggy_girl
Photo by groggy_girl CC BY

So, my lung collapsed on Tuesday 22nd of June.

I woke up at my usual time, stood up, sat down. Stood up, tried to stretch, sat down again. It felt like a lead ball was sitting in my chest – every time I tried to take a breath, it would send a wave of – not pain – discomfort across my upper body. I shuffled around for a while, giving it a chance to dissipate, but it got worse.

If I were directing this film, we’d now cut to a montage of half-second shots spliced one after another: stethoscope placed on a back; blood filling a vacuum tube; a blood pressure sleeve inflating; the flash-click of an X-ray machine; EKG stickers ripping off a chest. After a swathe of tests, I was moved to a room and told to wait for a doctor.

Three hours later, she appeared.

“All the test were clear – you can go home!” she said, obviously expecting me to high-five her and scamper.
“Oh, great… What’s this pain then?”

She shrugged.

“Maybe a pulled muscle?”
“Well, if it still hurts in a couple of days, should I come back?”
“Have you tried any pain killers?”
“Uh, no.”
“Try some… Cocodamol?”

She had no clue. I didn’t want to ignore the pain – I wanted to know what was causing it. To me, that’s like responding to getting shot in the stomach by changing your shirt. Nevertheless, sad little pack of painkillers in hand, I was sent home with an all-clear.

Two hours later I got a phone call from the same doctor.

“We’ve been looking at your X-ray again and you need to come in, OK?” She went to hang up.
“Whoa, why?”
“Oh, there’s a pocket of air.”
“In your chest.”
“Outside my lung?”
“Right hand side.”
“Wait, outside my lung?”
“Right hand side.”

It was infuriating. So I packed some overnight stuff and headed back to hospital. When I got there, I was assigned another doctor, who promptly informed me that I had spontaneous pneumothorax.

“What caused this?” I asked
“There’s no real cause. It tends to affect young, tall men – how tall are you?”

I was sitting down.

“About 5’11.”
“Well, young men.”

I didn’t have time to feel offended as she reeled off a number of things I’m now no longer allowed to do: Scuba diving, free diving, space travel. (Space travel! Looks like I’m never getting off this rock.)

And then, feeling like a seedy call-girl, I was undressed, drugged up and things were put in my body. The doctor had a fun time making room for my chest drain. I didn’t so much hear as feel a crunch as he broke through my intercostal muscle. Within minutes, a tube snaked its way from 6 inches in my chest to a tub of water on the ground. When I breathed, the water bubbled.

For a beautiful, glorious moment I felt the cinder block float off my chest and I sighed in relief.

Then someone stabbed me in the lung. In the space of 2 minutes, my lung had gone from sad deflated party balloon to majestic zeppelin, and there were 6 inches of tube in my chest. Oh the humanity! I have this image in my head of my chest waking up from the local anesthetic, looking around, seeing a big daddy tube and going “WhoaaaAA! Get this OUT OF ME!” I was shot up with morphine and left in agony for a few hours until my chest must’ve decided to just get used to it. And so began my 3 night stay in a mad house.

I was kept in a ward with 5 other guys, ranging from 50 to – really – 95. Fun crowd. The guy to my left spent the first night moaning in agony. Distraught, he cried for a nurse for about half an hour. Thinking he couldn’t reach his buzzer, I buzzed my own and the nurse came through.

I said, “Sorry, it’s not for me, but this guy was calling for help.” She jabbed my buzzer off and yapped “He can do it himself!” I was outraged. Here I was trying to do good for my fellow man, and she had the temerity to chide me for it! After all his moaning and agonising, when she asked him what the problem was he replied pathetically,

“I’ve got heartburn.”

The next night, the man across from me – obviously delirious with fever or drugs – tried to escape. Since he wasn’t stable on his feet, the nurses had repeatedly told him to stay in bed. I watched him cast a furtive glance right and left, clamber out of bed wearing nothing but an adult-sized pair of nappies, and make a fucking run for it out the corridor. It was like the Great Escape. I buzzed a nurse and they caught him 3 hallways down. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the image I saw through the window to the corridor, of that near-naked man as he stumbled hurriedly to freedom, his glazed expression betraying an accent of hope.

When he wasn’t breaking out, Dave (we’ll call him Dave) spent his time sleeping, shouting at imaginary people, and stress-testing his Pampers. Terribly, I got used to it. I woke up on the third night to the sound of a meaty thud. Peering from my bed I just saw his two legs lying toes-down on the ground. I buzzed a nurse, made sure someone came, and went back to sleep.

Dave didn’t lack for competition. A man at the far end spent his time pulling his oxygen line out of the wall, grabbing his zimmer frame while lying in bed and sweeping it around dangerously, clattering cups and food all over the floor. So not an insignificant amount of my time was spent attempting to ignore the sound of oxygen hissing out of the wall, drinkware crashing to the floor, and hallucination-induced screaming.

The 95 year old man slept sitting upright in the chair next to his bed. He bore his illness stoically. During the day he’d shuffle up and down the corridor to stretch his legs. Every night he went to the bathroom and shaved, and the nurses told me that back home he looked after his wife. The dignity with which he held himself made me want to cry. I was sorry to leave without having spoken a word to him.

I’m now back at work, whittling days off the next 7 weeks until I can gingerly place trust in my lungs enough to start exercising again. In 7 weeks, with luck, it’ll be like nothing ever happened. But now I have a chink in my armour. It’s idiotic I know, but on an emotional level it took my lung collapsing to realise “Oh right, yeah, I’m not invincible”.

I should probably be clear – what I went through was nothing. At no point did I ever have to face my mortality, at no point was I ever in any real danger. My worst fate is that if it happens again, I might be forced to drop all forms of exercise. Compared to what so many people I know have been through or are still going through, it’s not even a drop in the ocean. It’s not a bead of sweat falling from a flea’s testicle into the Pacific.

But I can’t help feeling like King Xerces with a cut cheek, realising he can bleed, too.

And since we’re on a 300 kick, I’ll end with a quote from Richard, who kindly left me this message:

It’s just a lung. The Gods saw fit to grace you with a spare.



The Last Ultimatum – Part One

Photo by miss_rogueCC BY
Photo by miss_rogue CC BY

Here’s the first part of a short story I’ve started writing. I’ve decided to post as I go, so this is “hot off the press”, as they never say. Thanks go to Richard Paterson for the title, which I’m doing a slow but hopefully interesting riff off of.

It was pitch black. Adam tried to look around, but having no head, failed miserably. Now that he thought about it, he didn’t seem to have a body either. A voice spoke.


Had he owned a body and a pair of trousers at that moment, one would have wet the other.

“Who’s there? Where am I?”

“Oh right, yes. Hold on”

After the briefest of pauses, Adam found himself housed in a passable, if opaque, reproduction of his body. It was seated in a volumous leather chair, itself placed by a crackling fireplace in what appeared to be a study. Shelves of books lined the walls, while busts of stately men regarded Adam impassively, brows furrowed and jaws clenched with purpose. A sheet of pipe smoke hung lazily in the air like cloud cover.

Across from him perched an improbable man, feet beslippered, hands poised on the arm-rests, and reflections of the fireplace lapping on the dome of his head. After an inordinate length of silence, the man leaned forward and spoke. His voice was jovial and reedy.

“Well, that was silly, wasn’t it?”

“Excuse me?”

“My dear Mr Simmons I’m sorry to say, but you’ve rather managed to decease yourself.”


“Yes indeed. For a man whose time is not yet up, this is just not done.”


“As you can expect, this can lead to all sorts of trouble. Hourglasses need to be emptied, people need to be informed, causality has to be given a hot tea and a lie down. It’s a bureaucratic nightmare, as you can imagine. It’s really more than my job’s worth. And the paperwork! Ugh!”

He threw his hands in the air. Adam stared blankly, mouth working silently, like a golfer taking practice swings. Eventually he managed,

“Wh- what?”

The man stood up suddenly, head piercing the languishing pipe smoke like a Himalayan mountain. Feeling his grip on sanity begin to loosen, an image of climbing the polished cranium and planting a flag at the crest leapt uninvited into Adam’s head, and he choked back a guffaw. His host seemed neither to notice or care, and held his hand out. Adam took the proferred hand and was pulled swiftly to his feet and guided to the door. As he stumbled, his host continued talking.

“So this will be our little secret, hm?”

“Oh. Uh, yes”

“I’m so glad we understand each other, Mr Simmons. But alas, here our paths must part”

He opened the door and prodded Adam unceremoniously into a grey office hallway. Adam turned back to catch a glimpse of this strange man, clad in smoking jacket and slippers, as he closed the door.

“I wish you all the best in your endeavours”

This last claim was punctuated by a crisp click as the door closed shut not an inch from his nose. Adam blinked. Seconds later he blinked again. It was actually only after several minutes that his activities extended to anything other than blinking. Eventually, he walked home.

Awkward Life Writing

Raspberries on the Wind

Was pulling faces at a wee girl in a restaurant today. Suddenly she ducked, and I ended up blowing a raspberry across the table at her gran.

Stone cold disdain on her wrinkled face.