Dam(n)

~ Do you remember that time in your life when you knew nothing about living but felt strong and confident enough to want to pull away from your parents, and that you were ready to make your own way in the world?

For me that time arrived while working at a summer job in Waterton, Alberta. I wanted to get away from home during my university summer break and I successfully secured a summer position that I had found posted on a university student employment board. Just before I left home I had started taking thyroid medication for hypothyroidism. That summer I felt like I had gained back the strength and energy that I had not experienced since I was a kid. I felt resilient, strong and capable. I had energy to spare. I felt clear. The timing was right; now was the time to strike out on my own.

My plan was to move to Calgary after my summer job was over in Waterton by using the bonus money my employer would award me upon completion of their contract. I didn’t know how I would finish my university career which I had started while living with my parents in Eastern Canada. I decided to register in some distance courses over the phone for the upcoming fall term; the books and VHS tapes were in the mail and on their way to Waterton. I planned to study while working in Calgary that fall and winter – I trusted that everything would fall in to place.

And then in the middle of that golden summer, my new beginning, my lungs almost killed me.

My summer job in Waterton was in housekeeping for a locally owned hotel in the middle of town. It was a physically demanding job, but I had energy to spare and took pride in my work. I gladly supplemented my income by taking on extra cleaning jobs for local home owners and the Anglican church once a week for the summer. My coworkers and I were a tight-knit group who all got along well and were all close in age; we were quickly becoming friends. Together we enjoyed doing things together after work and on our days off; hiking Bears Hump, Bertha Lake, trails around town and the Prince of Wales hotel, horseback riding, nights at the Thirsty Bear dancing the night away. The early summer was already hot and dry that year and talk of swimming in Waterton Lake after work was often a topic of conversation.

Finally, one afternoon after work we made it down to the lake. We spread our towels out on the dock and slipped in to the still frigid water. So refreshing! I paddled around a bit, near the dock. I have never liked the fact that you can’t see the bottom of a lake and what might be lurking there to tickle at my toes! After a few moments I began to have a familiar sensation seep in to my lungs and I began to have the urge to cough. That same dry, hacking cough that I experience with mom in the pool many winters ago was back! I instinctually swam directly to the dock and pulled myself up out of the water. I lay down on my towel to warm myself up in the sun, my body shaking from a mixture of the cool water and the racking cough which seemed to slowly calm down as the droplets of water evaporated from my body in the summer sun. I felt fine, as long as I wasn’t in the water. At the time I don’t remember making the connection between this incident in Waterton and the earlier one that happened with my mom in the public swimming pool.

Fast-forward a few months, the days were still long and hot but you could feel that things had begun to arc towards fall and winter. The planters that were once lush and green had a tired, dried appearance that did not go away even after a good watering; the black bears had started to come in to town, lured by the scent of unsecured garbage cans – humans be damned. As a group of girls working long hours together all summer long we had become close and decided while the sun was still hot and the weather warm that we would get out of town for a day, have a sleep over at a co-worker’s home and visit a local swimming spot that was also popular with wind surfers, Pincher Creek’s Old Man River Dam.

On the day of our planned get-away, we met after work, armed with towels, swimsuits on under our shorts and zoomed off to Pincher Creek in the only car that a local girl drove to work each day. Windows down, singing along to Blue Rodeo and The Tragically Hip we arrived at the swimming spot mid-afternoon, the prairie sky as always so blue and large, the sun hanging there, seeming not to move. We followed the local girl to a wonderful, sheltered, shallow swimming hole. No one else was around except us. The rocks were warm, the water cool. I felt very adult, independent, expansive – I was living my life. My plan was just to paddle around with the girls, wash off the summer work sweat and then warm up in the sun, relax.

I walked in slowly, picking my way among the rocks. Some of the girls who were strong swimmers had swum out ahead of me to report on the depth and temperature of water (‘just over our heads here!’, ‘it’s not too cold!’, ‘refreshing!’). I swam out about 10 feet from shore, letting the water wash away my tension and cool my head. I tread water looking around at the amazing rock formations for a few moments, talking to my friends. I was planning to swim back and get out when suddenly I had the sudden urge to get out of the water NOW. I felt instantly weak, my limbs like lead. Disoriented and panicking I saw the far side of the reservoir and started to clumsily and lethargically swim towards it thinking it was my closest escape from the water. My friends saw my panic and redirected me to turn around but unfortunately, I had run out of my last ounce of strength.  I could not lift a limb and the water felt like cement. I knew from my swimming lessons to turn on to my back and try to relax in order to help my body float and keep my face out of the water. The girls that I was with that day saved my life.

I was too disoriented to know how they got me to shore, but they did, thank God. The funny feeling in my chest and urge to cough never came like they had before now, there had been no warning this time.

It. Happened. So. Quickly.

When I was finally pulled to the shore and I only had energy to sit at the edge of the water, I didn’t remember how I had gotten there. Dazed, I felt nauseous and coughed once in to my hands and saw what looked to be about a cup of blood and mucus covering my palms and fingers. I stared at my hands, not understanding what I was looking at. But the girls did. Something was wrong with my lungs but it had seemed to stop, for now. They washed my hands at the edge of the water and knew they had to get me help.

We had hiked in a way to the swimming hole and so they discussed how to get me out and asked me if I could walk out. I tried to stand and walk but my legs felt like lead and I had to tell them that I could not go any further than the few steps I had tried. Remember this happened in the 1990’s, before everyone had a cell phone. Our nearest help was a 15-kilometer drive away in the town of Pincher Creek – we were on our own.

Through this whole situation the girls kept their heads, I don’t remember anyone freaking out. They talked as I slumped against a rock and fought off the urge to pass out. They decided that it was best if they formed a fireman’s chair and took turns carrying me out. About half way to where the car was parked I had an embarrassingly overwhelming urge to evacuate my bowels. I begged the girls to leave me behind a large boulder and I pulled my bathing suit aside. I had heard that this happened to people before they died – was this happening to me right now? In slow motion? I always thought death would be quick (and that that part happened after you died). I was too spacey to be scared at this point, it was like I was observing everything that was happening in my body from a distance. I remember through it all just being so completely tired.

We finally arrived at the car, and back to Pincher Creek where my coworkers’ mom was a nurse who went with us to the community hospital as the sun was setting. They put me in a wheel chair when we arrived at the community hospital and when I had to stand up and raise my arms over my head and hang on to a bar to take the x-ray I almost passed out from exhaustion. There they x-rayed my lungs and found that they were completely opaque, white. I just remember wanting so badly to sleep.

Shortly after the x-rays were taken in the Pincher Creek hospital the doctor there realized that I needed urgent care and that I had to go to Lethbridge and to Chinook Regional Hospital right away for proper care. Angels were seeing over me that day and instead of making the 100-kilometer trip that night by ambulance my co-worker’s mom and dad drove me as fast as they could in their big green F150, flashers on the whole way. I sat between them in the front seat, so tired that I shamelessly put my head on that woman’s shoulder as much to rest as for the reassurance of human touch. She tried to talk to me to keep me awake while I fought the urge to pass out from exhaustion. He tensely and quietly drove at high speed, over taking most of the traffic on the road that night. Watching the cars rise up out the darkness in the truck headlights and drift by as we passed them felt surreal – I was in a daze and not processing things properly.

Seeing the bright lights of the hospital in Lethbridge was strangely a relief. The Pincher Creek hospital had called ahead and a group of nurses and doctors were waiting for me when we arrived. The gurney that I was finally allowed to lie down on felt so good. I remember being poked in my wrist more than once by a nervous attendee – I wonder what I must have looked like; pale, grey, blue? Thankfully I had not coughed up any more blood since I was pulled from the water. I just wanted to sleep so badly.

My co-worker’s mother stayed with me that night and what I think was until the next day until my mom was able to secure a flight and flew out from the East coast of Canada. I watched and listened as the two mothers, who also both happened to be nurses, met at the foot of my hospital bed and shared theories on my mystery illness/incident.

I will be forever grateful to my co-worker’s mother and father for taking care of me like I was one of their own. I will always appreciate the selfless acts of kindness they did that day and night and for staying with me until mom arrived. I will always have enormous and unending gratitude for this fine couple and for my friends who saved my life that day. Words are not enough to encompass the breadth and depth of emotion that I feel for you all. I wish you all the best in this world.

I found myself alone in an isolation unit to rest and wait while they tried to figure out what had happened to me. The doctors weren’t sure if I had contracted the Hanta virus and another contagious disease that might have affected my lungs. I was not in any pain and thankfully my lungs had not bled since I was pulled from the water at the Old Man Dam. Now that I was in hospital and the danger of further damage to my lungs had seemingly passed the wonder and adrenaline of what I had just survived really kicked in. In a big way. I was alone in a beautiful room that looked out onto a court yard that was ironically water themed complete with a fountain and pool of water. It was hard to look at. I also had a hard time working up the courage to have a shower for days after the incident as I was convinced that I had developed a deadly reaction to all sources of water. It wasn’t until mom told me that I smelled pretty bad that I agreed to try having my first shower. In my traumatized mind I was convinced that getting anywhere near water might trigger my lungs to bleed. I was on high alert, ready to run out of the bathroom at the first sign of respiratory distress during that first trip in to the shower. Thankfully, that did not happen and I felt and smelled a lot better afterwards too.

While recovering in isolation, I saw a lot of doctors and nurses. Hospital staff came to clean my room and deliver my meals. Everyone that entered my room wore long, yellow disposable gowns and masks that covered their faces. Covered faces made it hard to read expressions, but I knew it was serious. The one facial feature that I could rely on to read on a person’s face was their eyes, and no one’s eyes were smiling when they came to visit me.

But my health had not deteriorated. Slowly, my exhaustion had passed and my appetite was good. I had no pain. I was given breathing exercises to do while resting in my hospital bed. When I now breathed in and out it now sounded like I had cellophane in my lungs that crinkled. I occasionally coughed up small brown, or dark red round bits of blood.

A few weeks later I was discharged with the diagnosis of idiopathic pulmonary hemosiderosis and the advice to rest and take it easy. With my mom as my care taker we returned to Waterton but soon decided it was best if we took a car trip to British Columbia so that we could locate my brother that we had been out of touch with.

After our car trip and successful location of my brother, I slowly returned to work and will be forever grateful that my employer was able to accommodate my sick leave. I was going to be able to finish my work contract! Six weeks later I had a follow-up chest x-ray and visit to the lung specialist in Lethbridge. I took the Greyhound bus into town for my appointments and mom paid for a B&B for me to stay at. My x-ray was clear, my energy was back – I was given a clean bill of health 😊

I felt frustrated that what had happened to me at the end of the summer might pull me back to my life as a dependent child. I felt like a comet that was trying desperately to escape the gravity of ‘planet parent’ and that this damn lung thing was trying to pull me back in. This was supposed to have been the fall that I began my adult life on my own – I was not going to fail to launch!

I fought against the urge to move back to the safety of home and parents and the security that this meant. I stayed that fall and winter in Calgary, and it was the right decision. Calgary became my home for the next 7 years of my life. Thankfully my youthful lungs recovered and life continued at the pace that only a twenty-something can sustain. I was slowly becoming an adult.

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