On Masks & Near-Death in the COVID Era

I wavered on whether I would post this publicly because I'm still raw in my heart and in recovery in my body. However, I was at the gas station yesterday and had to go inside (which I was trying to avoid), and in the time I was waiting in line two people entered completely maskless and probably a solid five more came in wearing their masks in various chin-support configurations that in no way covered their nose/mouth. The whole time I felt acutely aware that just over a week ago I was in the ICU with a machine breathing for me.

I didn’t have COVID. I had possible pneumonia with respiratory failure and pulmonary edema. And what I also had was a painful insight on what it’s like to draw razor blades with every breath, to feel your lungs filling with fluid uncontrollably, drowning you alive.

I do believe the people inside that convenience store (even the ones without masks) were fine and loving people in their way (it takes all kinds to make a world), and I’m sure that if they actually were the vector by which someone caught COVID and died, they would be devastated. But by one means or another, being careful to take care of others was just slipping through the cracks. We shouldn't let taking care of others slip through the cracks so much, in so many ways big and small. We can be better. We should be better. Please wear your mask. Properly. Please stay home as best as you can when you can. Please take care of others. We can do this.

I am so painfully aware of how vulnerable I am to this virus. And I can confirm now with complete confidence that being unable to breathe and basically drowning in your own lungs is a very painful, frightening, and horrible way to go.

It began simply. I couldn’t breathe.

They intubated me and wheeled me off to the ICU.

I struggled with fighting against the tube shoved in my mouth and running down my throat while I nodded in and out of painful consciousness. Every swallow was razor blades. Intubation isn’t the kind of visceral sensation you can get used to or forget; every cell of your body is lit up with the awareness that there is a tube in your throat. The pain exists on a basic and fundamental level; the tube is there, it is hard, it is unyielding, and it hurts.

“Don’t bite on the tube,” the nurses kept saying, which I'm sorry to say didn’t at all motivate me to stop biting down on the thing that was hurting me so profoundly.

My hands were strapped to either side of the bed rails because while unconscious, I kept trying to pull out the IV and breathing tube. I was not so much a body as a mess of tubes taped on in intricate configurations. I am still, a week later, trying to scrub off the old adhesive marks from the surgical tape all over my body, including the one on my thigh keeping the catheter tubing in place.

I nodded vigorously whenever asked if I wanted pain meds because it was the only way to hit the fast-forward button on the agony.

One of the nastiest parts of the experience is suction. This is a process akin to having the most delicate part of your soul violently vacuumed out of your lungs. Maybe ten seconds long, but once is enough for a lifetime. I’m not sure if I still have a soul, because I’m pretty sure I got suctioned about three times during my time intubated. "This will make you cough a little bit," they’d say in a very gentle, apologetic voice, clearly knowing that there was nothing they could do to make it less torturous.

It does make you “cough a little bit.” It also makes you horribly strain parts of you that you didn’t know could be strained in utter, complete agony.

If you need a mental picture of what it feels like, imagine the Dementors from Harry Potter performing the Kiss of Death, and that will suffice.

Because I couldn’t talk OR reach the nurse call button with my hands tied, I would tap the rail until someone came and then try to mime writing so they would give me a pen/paper to communicate my needs. Hot. Cold. Adjust bed up or down. (Because I couldn’t even reach the bed adjustments with my hands tied.) And now I am home, fragile, resting, and more than a little traumatized. I am getting better every day. But I need you to wear your masks. You wear yours and I'll wear mine.

Thank you. Be well.

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header illustration & webdesign by Christie Cognevich