I pushed my overflowing cart into the room just as she gasped.
“Help!’ she gurgled. Slumping back onto her pillows that were piled up behind her head, she reached her hand out to me. I put down my squirt bottle and walked over to her side.
That is when the coughing started. Not the simple clearing of the throat, but a lung rattling never ending choke that made her grip my hand all the more.
Then, when the moment had passed, the sound of fluid in her lungs began again as she struggled for oxygen. Her eyes wide with fear she said,
“You are okay,” I said softly. On the outside I put on the best comforting face I could and placed my other hand over hers, but on the inside, I was horrified by what I was witnessing.
With those words I saw her relax a little just before a second round of a choking fit overtook her.
“Please,” she cried in between the paralyzing coughs and gasps. “I can’t breathe! Help!” The more she panicked, the worse her symptoms raged.
I pushed the call button to summon the nursing staff. I had seen this type of situation before but not this severe. I had begun working at the nursing home at age sixteen, and I was about a year into seeing people at the end stage of life. Contrast this with going to high school, and I was living in two worlds. While the elderly were clinging to life and some wished they had more time, many of my so called peers were on their way to destroying their existence with drugs and alcohol and thought they were going to live forever.
The nurse arrived quickly.
“How are we doing?” she asked.
Always a bright light in most situations, I was glad she was the one working this particular shift. No matter how dire the circumstance, she seemed to bring peace when she spoke to the patients.
“I can’t breathe,” the woman replied with all her strength.
“You can breathe. Just slow down a little and it will help. The harder you struggle, and the more worried you get, the more it feels like you can’t breathe.”
She adjusted the tube under the nose, turned up the oxygen a notch and administered something to relieve the situation. I walked out into the hallway to grab cleaning supplies from my cart.
As she walked past me, I said,
“I feel bad for her. That seems so miserable.”
“She has a lot of fluid in her lungs. She has emphysema from all her years of smoking. When she can’t take a deep breath it makes her panic because she feels like she is drowning. I gave her the medication the doctor ordered to help her relax a little.”
I returned to the room to find her quiet and only coughing occasionally. I silently went about my work so I wouldn’t disturb her. As I wiped down her dresser, I could see her reflection in the mirror. She was so vulnerable and frail looking with her eyes closed and her labored breathing interrupted by a torrent of rumbling in her chest. I carefully moved all of her items, dusted and put everything back in its place. I watered her flowers that the family had brought in, straightened up clothing on a chair, and emptied the waste basket. Any little movement or sound from her made me look in her direction to be sure she was okay.
I noticed her window was dirty, so I began to spray it with cleaner. Her view overlooked the parking lot, so as I scrubbed, I could see various staff coming and going. The back door to the building opened, and the nurse who had just given such good care to the ailing lady exited. Much to my shock, I watched as she pulled out a pack of cigarettes, lit one and smoked away as if she hadn’t just cared for someone who was on her deathbed. I stood there with my paper towel roll in mid-air as a coughing fit seized the woman in bed and the nurse happily puffed away in the parking lot smiling and talking to a fellow co-worker smoker.
I could not make sense of it, and to this day the vivid memory haunts me. I realize addiction exists but what does it take to wake us up to the reality that the decisions we make determine the quality and direction of our path? I am sure the woman confined to her bed would have loved to rewind the clock at that moment and go back to make different choices. She would have given anything to take one, long, deep, satisfying intake of air. But, would she? If given another shot, would she soon get swept up in the habit again which would only lead to the same result?
We engage in activities knowing full well that they lead to our own destruction. I’m not just talking about smoking or over eating. What about worrying? Uncontrolled anger? Jealousy? Judgment? Resentment? Unforgiveness? Fear? Our emotions can be just as detrimental to our physical well being as ingesting a poisonous substance. And, if we feed on the negative thoughts long enough, it can ultimately lead to early death.
In addition, even if the end doesn’t come, living with dark thoughts and attitudes is just as miserable as the woman who couldn’t breathe. Life becomes confined to a small space where depression and mental torment become the normal. If this condition is left to go on you become just like the woman who could not escape her own failing lungs.
The good news is this: we have choices. It may not seem like we do. We want to make excuses for ourselves and say we can’t help the decisions we make. But we will always have the ultimate say about the direction we are heading. We can put down the fork. We can extinguish the cigarette. We can chose to forgive even if the other person is a real piece of work. There is an important passage that says: Death and life are in the power of your tongue. Choose life!
Speak blessings instead of complaining. Give someone a compliment instead of a put down. Start with one little thing and build on it day by day until the light penetrates the dark. It may take effort. It doesn’t happen necessarily overnight to rewire ourselves.
“But, I can’t do it on my own. I am not strong enough.”
To this, there is another answer and it isn’t a pill, potion or a puff of something. Look to the One who created you. Yes, it is as easy as that. There doesn’t have to be a long list of rules to follow. There just has to be a simple asking for help and a willing heart that seeks better. Heaven will respond because you are loved that much.
Similar to opening up a window to let in a gentle breeze that blows away the staleness, inhale the goodness that has been there for you all along. Now, isn’t that a breath of fresh air?