I just remembered the best memory.
Coincidentally, this is also the story of how I had to seek emergency professional medical care for my asthma for the first time.
Oddly enough, it can be both.
It started like any other Tuesday evening for me, at the time, 18, in college, away from home – 45 minutes away – for the first time. Young, impressionable. Scarily optimistic and trusting. I took a full class load, I took Honors Civ and Honors Humanities, I auditioned for dance company, I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed little thing.
My bestest best friend Lauren and I still taught dance back in our home town, 45 minutes away. We ran the dance program at our community park and recreation center with our other best friend Becky, which, eventually, two years and two recitals later, turned out to be a bit much for both of us to handle, on top of our class work, on top of dance company rehearsals, attempting a modicum of a social life. But our first semester, freshman year, it was completely the norm for me to scamper home from my afternoon class, grab our stuff, hike down the hill to the freshman lot, get Lauren’s car, drive it over to the building where her afternoon class was finishing up – pick her up, stuff sandwiches or fruit – lunch — in our face as we drove top speed, play our class music and review or notes – teach from 4:30 until 9:30, some eight to ten classes in five hours between the three of us…and then drive 45 minutes home. Stagger up the hill from the freshman lot to our form. Collapse in our dorm rooms, unwind for a moment – and then start our homework. It was exhausting – but we had amazing students, and it was the first time we’d gotten to run a dance program on our own.
So – that was a normal Tuesday, and most of this day in particular went exactly like that – the drive, the teaching of classes, packing ourselves back into the car and heading for home. I remember, we stopped at a McDonald’s – this was important later on – and grabbed a couple combos to stuff our faces on the way home. We were ravenous, we’d been up since 8 AM and danced for five hours. We chatted the whole way home about, oh, who remembers, probably compartmentalizing classes, discussing problem children, drifting into talk of class or boys or rehearsal. I coughed a couple times, wet my whistle. Coughed again. And again, and again.
And again. We both knew I had asthma, had as long as we’d known each other, really been friends, somewhere in early middle school. In high school I took a little while to learn my triggers and my limits, I’d had more than a few asthma attacks near or with Lauren, in color guard, at dance class, after a chest cold, or a particularly strong perfume. A weird breeze, or really dry, cold air. Learned when I could push myself, and when I needed to back off – and that I always, always needed to have my inhaler on me.
(Sorry, various band moms or band dads who had to run back to the bus/band room/my purse to find it after I collapsed!! Really, I am!!)
By the time I was a freshman in college, I felt like I had asthma down. There’s that stage with a health issue, after you’ve lived with it for several years – in my case, about 7 or 8 diagnosed – you get used to it. Managing an asthma attack isn’t fun, or entertaining, or easy, but after a time, you get the hand of it. Inhaler, two pumps to start, for me – water. Concentrate on breathing. Calm down. More water. If things didn’t start looking up, another puff on the inhaler. Once or twice in really bad situations, a fourth. But never more – I had a heart murmur from birth, and heart palpitations from time to time (they never figured out what it was – it’s fine, apparently, it’s just a thing my heart does, this is the answer we got after an childhood filled with awkward cardiograms and obnoxious heart monitors) – even just the normal dosage of two sped up my heart a little. Fine, but we had to be careful. Three got it pumping, and four – four we only did when I was really sick, wheezing uncontrollably, near to passing out.
But – four had always worked. Two was the most common – or better yet, by freshman year of college, I’d learn that a preventative one puff when I just started feeling a little bit tight could ward off an attack entirely. Over the years, I stopped having them as often, was able to do dance company and teach dance with almost no issue. Sometimes, I even forgot I had asthma.
This was not one of those nights.
I took the two puffs, drank some more of my Coke, dug my water bottle out of my dance bag. Coughed and coughed and coughed. Lauren went from a sort of general you okay there, friend to a very concerned, scared are you okay?!?!
I didn’t know. I had never had an asthma attack like this. The three rounds of inhaler hadn’t even pumped the brakes, I just coughed and coughed and coughed. I took a fourth.
We might have gone to the hospital, right then, on our way home but – well, see, the thing about the drive between Paducah and Murray is that it is bleak no-man’s land, no matter which route you take. Either route takes you through or past rural farmland and a few towns small enough that you could literally hold your breath as you drove through them; believe me, I did it, as a kid.
But we’d taken the Interstate that night – the back country highway route was our favourite, more beautiful, more meandering, more scenery. But the Interstate was quicker, seemed quicker – we could drive at high speeds with no stopping, pop the cruise control and multitask, talking through class plans, or one of us doing paperwork/making snacks while the other drove. The Interstate, however, basically cut through a whole lot of nothing. Out of Paducah – as we had been, when the attack hit me – there were pretty much no exits until we hit the parkway, and then it was parkway, and more parkway. Curving only past solitary houses, here and there a huddle of gas stations, a Doller General. Even if there was a hospital in that stretch of land, we wouldn’t have known how to find it.
So – Lauren, being my bestest best friend, put her foot down and drove. 90, I believe – with her emergency flashers on. We would have welcomed a cop pulling us over, she would have plopped me in the back seat and made that copper put the siren and the lights on the whole way into town.
No one stopped us. We screeched into Murray – Lauren missed a turn, probably because I was at the point of panic attack in addition to the asthma attack. There’s a certain cliff you drop over, at some point, during an asthma attack. The point from okay, I’ve got this, I’ve got this, I can do this to – Jesus, I cannot BREATHE! I cannot BREATHE! Somehow, I manage to hyperventilate, sometimes – like this night. What little oxygen was getting in my body was not going to my lungs but to my brain. I was dizzy, coughing so hard I nearly passed out –coughed so hard I puked into an empty McDonald’s bag.
My back had started to ache; a sharp, hot pain like lightning. Lauren squealed into an emergency parking spot, flashers still going – and tried to walk me into the dorm.
We couldn’t make it to my room on the third floor, we couldn’t even make it all the way down the hallway on the first floor. I slumped to the floor, leaning against the wall in between two boys’ rooms, while Lauren called my mom to ask her what to do.
Believe it or not, this is where the good memory starts to come in.
Lauren and my mom both agreed I needed to go to the ER. That scared me – I’d never had to go before. Mom had threatened, a couple times, in a gentle, calming way – Emmy, if we can’t get this under control, I’m going to have to take you the Emergency Room – but we’d never actually gone. I didn’t even know what would happen when we got there.
Several people were drawn by the noise, and the growing hum of panic. Among them – the head of our “college,” as MSU refers to its dorms. A professor, on campus, who was sort of the mascot slash professor slash liaison between the students of the college/dorm and the university. I don’t really remember him much, except that he was middle aged, and affable, but also seemed to be slightly confused by large groups of young people.
His wife, however – I remember her. I always will.
She was there with him that night, a middle aged woman, with short, soft, black hair heavily shot with grey. Big, dark eyes. A soft, kind face. Another professor at the University. She reminded me of the mothers of my best friends, someone I would have known from childhood, been affectionate with. Her clothes were rich but understated, she spoke with a soft accent. Something Middle Eastern, I think, although I never got to ask her exactly where.
She, and her husband in his capacity of head of the college, volunteered to follow Lauren and me to the emergency room. Which really – that, in and of itself, is a lovely thing to do. They didn’t have to. I didn’t know this head of my college. I think he had been there, the day Lauren and I moved in, wearing a red Richmond T-shirt over his button down and khakis. We had maybe shaken hands. I hadn’t seen him since, didn’t take any of his classes. A figurehead – he was a figurehead for our dorm, not so much an actual counselor or therapist.
But he and his wife were kind people, and they wanted to make sure everything went okay for Lauren and me. I know how we had to have seemed, looking back. We both had baby faces, big eyes, big cheeks, and back then we were both tiny. Dressed in leotards and dance tights, with sweatpants or shorts, a sweater thrown over. Fresh-faces clean of make-up. We probably looked 16, instead of 18.
Lauren undertook the task of signing me into the Emergency Room – a job that the nurse had tried to make me do, first – asking me to recite my name, my address, my insurance information – when at this point, I’d developed a stabbing pain in my ribs, my throat raw, that back pain worsening. And I still couldn’t stop coughing. Between the head of the college, his wife, and Lauren – Lauren clearly knew me best. Knew most of my information by heart, and could dig in my purse for the right information if she didn’t. Call my mom, ask her.
But that kept Lauren out in the lobby at a desk, with paperwork – and sent wheezing, gasping, nearly hysterical me back into the actual Emergency Room, alone.
But no – my college head’s wife came with me.
Again – there was no reason to. Even if her husband was my college head, she was not. She, I had certainly never met before. I didn’t take her classes, she’d never been at the dorm when I had before.
But my own mother was 45 minutes away. Hopping in a car immediately, after talking to Lauren, speeding through the night (with her own best friend in the car, if I recall correctly) in nearly the same rush we had only a half hour before – but unable to be with me, immediately. Delayed by the simple rules of distance and time. She got there, in time, and was so wonderful and perfectly mom, and I don’t think I had ever been happier to see her, or that I felt completely out of the asthma attack until I saw her and got to feel her hug me – and I think even Lauren’s mom, in town, came by, once Lauren got me checked in and thought to call her.
But at the beginning, when nurses were still poking me and prodding me and getting me to lean up and hooking me up to machines – there was only this woman, this stranger.
She could not have been kinder to me – and that is what is best about this memory. She wasn’t even just kind in the way of friendly, polite people – as many Good Samaritans might have been. She was – lovely. She didn’t just comfort me – she distracted me.
At the beginning, when I was still scared, when I was still out of control – she reassured me. She patted my arm, held my hand as they drew blood. Soothed me.
And as the doctor’s began giving me shots – some sort of steroid, some sort of muscle relaxer, some sort of calm the hell down medicine – and loading up the big nebulizer with a breathing treatment – she talked to me. She entertained me, the entire time the first round of breathing treatment was in the tube. If you’re unfamiliar – the nebulizer diffuses the liquid medicine into water vapor, which you inhale. Gets a continuous round of calm down medicine directly into the lungs, deep.
But you can’t talk – you’ve got a plastic sort of peace pipe, and you have to wrap your lips around this wide almost-funnel, and hold the whole thing in place, and you exhale a sort of pale mist, and feel very strange the entire time you’re doing it.
So I couldn’t talk, and I was still getting blood drawn and IVs in and an oxygen meter on my fingertip – and this woman talked to me. Told me stories about her home – I wish I had asked were that was – about a bakery, I think. The little cakes they made there. Places they vacationed. Painted little pictures with her words, drew me into these worlds so I wasn’t concentrating what was happening around me, the raggedness of my chest.
She was back there with me, alone, perhaps thirty minutes. It felt like a very long time – not in a bad way, in a sort of dreamy, content way – but I don’t think it would have been more than thirty minutes before Lauren came back. Before I started to actually feel better. Lauren and I reunited, Lauren’s mom arriving shortly after, my own mom fifteen minutes away – there was no reason for my college head and his lovely wife to stay any longer. It had been rather late when Lauren and I arrived back in Murray, they must have been about to head home themselves – and they had come with us, stayed with us.
They left, and she was gone, and I never saw her again. I meant to seek her out, on campus, afterwards. Thank her in person for what a kindness she did to me. I never did, and I wish I had. I was so tired, when I finally got home, sick and half-dead for another day or two before I really started feeling back to my old self. Then I’d missed two days of classes, and had to catch up – and then the pain and the fear of that entire night started to fade.
I forgot how scared I had been, how panicked. How raw I felt, how out of control. How one stranger, one woman who saw a young lady in pain, in trouble – and took the time to be a person to her. Took the time to be a mother, until my own mother could be there. She made it seem so effortless, so natural, so obvious that she would do this. By the time she left me, I felt like I had known her for years and years.
The night was a scary one, and one I’m lucky I haven’t had to repeat to quite that severity. But when I look back on that memory, I’m always so warmed by this one thing, this stranger who went out of her way to comfort and soothe a young woman she would never see again. She’s stuck with me, ten years later, and even though that night was scary and painful — when I look back on it, and think of her — I always smile.