Breath

Breathe in.

What do you do when the very thing that is meant to help you can also kill you?

Breathe out.

According to my nurse, about 15% of patients who get iron infusions react to them. A reaction can range from a tickle in the throat and rashes to more serious reactions.

Breathe in.

I have one known allergy, which is beeswax. I have a contact allergen to it. I found out several years ago when I first moved to the Bay. I started getting this scaly rash on my face and skin, which landed me in urgent care, and I worked with a few doctors to figure out. It’s technically the glue that bees make to create beeswax that I’m allergic too, but it’s easier to say beeswax. You don’t realize how prolific something is until you have adverse reactions to it. Beeswax is present in an extraordinarily high number of cosmetic products. I have to be very careful about checking the labels of what I buy from lotion to chapstick, graciously explain to folk why Burt’s Bees is my sworn enemy, and have a growing collection of vegan products.

Breathe out.

We only know what we know.

Breathe in.

I had to return to the infusion center last Thursday since my previous visit resulted in isolation rooms, chest x-rays, and COVID tests. They put me in another isolation room, but I didn’t fight this one despite my two negative COVID tests since it had a beautiful view of the city and a nice bed. I braced myself for another round of ‘find that vein,’ a painful game of how many attempts it takes for the nurses to find a vein for the IV, which includes everything from a vein finder, some choice curse words, and heating packs for my arms. I like to guess which arm will win the battle that day. On Thursday the count was two nurses, three attempts with lots of wiggling around, and about 30 minutes.

Breathe out.

I am no stranger to the world of struggled breathing. In elementary school I was diagnosed with asthma and prescribed three different medications that I took three times a day three puffs each — pink, white, and yellow inhalers, the white one leaving a disgusting pollen yellow residue and taste. I joined band to use the controlled breathing of playing an instrument to help me push my lungs to support me better, and eventually was able to retire all of my medication beyond an emergency inhaler I’m always prescribed.

Breathe in.

It had been years since I had used it, until this recent revisiting of labored breathing.

Breathe out.

I sat listening to music on Thursday as the iron flowed into my body. I can’t remember when exactly during the infusion it happened but my first sign was a slight tightening of my chest and throat. It was strange, but I took a sip of water, thinking the sensation would pass. But the next second brought another tightening, this time feeling like bricks were being laid upon my chest. I pressed the call button for the nurse. Another second and the bricks became houses atop my chest, and the first wave of panic hits me as I press the call button two, three times.

Breathe in.

Even though this was all within seconds, by the time a nurse stuck her head in to see what I needed, the chest tightening had increased significantly. I opened my mouth to speak and immediately the nurse told me she could hear it in my voice that I was having a reaction and she went into action: stopping the IV, removing all remaining iron from the IV, and telling me she was going to give me a drug to reverse the reaction. She assured me that relief would come within minutes, as I looked expectantly at the drug she put into the IV.

Breathe out.

But relief didn’t come.

Breathe in.

The tightening in my chest went from bricks to boulders, and panic settled in deep as I realized I couldn’t breathe. The nurse ripped off my mask, removed my headphones from my shoulders as more nurses rushed inside, someone shouting for oxygen. As I struggle to take any air in, a pulsating pain begins in my lower back. The pain intensifies across my back as I begin to rock to the side, crying uncontrollably for the nurses to do anything to stop the pain as it reaches levels of pain I have never experienced before, beyond a scale that I can describe, my body in full blown distress as the nurses rush to administer rescue drugs.

Breathe out.

It’s all I can do to not black out from the pain in my back and the panic of being unable to take a breath. Struggling to focus on the words of the nurse holding my hand so that I can stay with them.

Breathe in.

We often describe minutes that feel like hours that feel like years. Finally oxygen aids me in taking shallow breaths and the pain goes from blackout levels to moderate. And finally the pain in my back subsides and my breathing is ragged but present and steady.

Breathe out.

I am unable to move my body or speak when the nurse asks me to look at her, only able to shift my eyes and shake my head as my body remains in shock. They give me more medication to open my airways as tightening returns and I brace myself for the rush of unbearable pain, that gratefully does not return with this second restriction. I begin to move my body as the anxiety medication kicks in.

Breathe in.

What do you do when the very thing that is meant to help you can also kill you?

Breathe out.

I stay under careful monitoring until the center closes. I am alone in these moments as no one who is not a patient is allowed into the infusion area, the space filled with immunocompromised individuals, some severely so. I being one of the lot for now. Bloodwork stable and trusting that they had given me every drug to fight reaction but the kitchen sink, they wheel me out and release me to the care of a friend.

Breathe in.

I can’t speak on the ride back to Oakland. I take my steps toward my apartment in a trance. Another friend drops off food while another comes to stay with me until I fall asleep safely.

Breathe out.

I keep thinking about breaths. I keep putting my hand on my chest and practicing taking a deep breath in. I keep wondering what’s next.

Breathe in.

It’s been three days. There’s been a lot of great people in my life who have checked in on me since Thursday. But processing takes time. I can’t always talk about everything going on right now. I can’t truly describe the trauma held within that moment. I leave messages unread and unanswered as I first find the words for myself. My writings on this blog are those first attempts.

I’m breathing in and breathing out. Purposeful breaths as deep as I can manage.

Breathe out.

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