It's Just A Cold . . . Right?


Every year, I get at least one nasty cold. You know how it goes. Kleenex become an endangered species in your house, you're achier than a 1990's Billy Ray Cyrus song, and then there's that nagging cough that always seems to hang out a lot longer than any other symptom. To me, the coughing has always been the worst part of it. It's embarrassing. A nuisance. A pain in the patoot. But eventually, inevitably, it fades away.

Plus, I think as I've grown older, I've started to develop a few allergies. In years past, when I earned my keep by slinging around horse manure and such, I lived in a world of dusty hay mows and heavily shedding ponies without so much as a twitch. These days, I can barely drive past a particularly green field without pausing for a sneeze and a blow.

Then there was the flood. On June 7th of 2008, my slice of Wisconsin was hit with a deluge of rain that backed up the storm drain in the alley behind my house, filled up my garage, totaled my car, rolled up the back yard and made itself comfy in my basement. It was a disaster beyond anything I'd ever imagined. I don't even live in a flood plain! As the water kept coming, my daughter and I salvaged what we could from the basement until I noticed that one of the electrical outlets was doing a terrific imitation of a kitchen faucet. After that, we went upstairs, stood out on the deck and watched kids in a canoe paddling down the alley. The damage to the area was catastrophic enough that in less than 48 hours, FEMA crews were out and about. It was referred to as "the hundred year flood," something that you only see once in a lifetime, if that.

Five days later, it happened again.

That time, secure in the knowledge that my kids were on high ground at the ex's house and that anything that I cared about in the basement that could be destroyed had already been destroyed, I played my guitar, goofed around on the computer, hung out with the dog, occasionally wandered down the basement steps to rescue anything that might be floating by and waited for the walls to collapse. (Luckily they didn't.) The next morning, I discovered that there were sections of my four foot tall chain link fence that were completely submerged. It took about three days for the water to be pumped out and away by city workers. (We won't even discuss the broken sump pump that I had to hit with a broom every ten or fifteen minutes day and night, or the endless squeegee-thons.) The clean up is still ongoing and my basement still looks like it was hit by a bomb.

So, of course when I started coughing in late June or early July, it had to be from mold in the drenched basement. If it wasn't that, it was a cold. Or maybe allergies. Nothing serious. And if I felt a little run down, well hey, wouldn't you?!

But then, I started having these breathless moments. Climbing stairs took on a new level of difficulty. Lifting cases of soda at work took a lot more effort than they should have, given that the clean up should have added muscle, not taken it away. Strangest of all, my right arm started to hurt when I let it hang down naturally. I mean, really hurt. A web search of my list of symptoms made me laugh out loud. It indicated lung cancer. How silly is that? I don't smoke!

Well, I don't!

On August 1st, I'd had enough. After all, if I had fungus growing in my lungs or something, maybe it was worth checking out. To illustrate how un-sickly a person I am, my call to the doctor's office involved a data bank search and the news that my doctor had left the firm three years ago. However, they got me in pretty quickly to see a physician's assistant.

She was nice. Asked a few questions. Agreed that on a scale of 1-10 my cough was a 78.4. Bronchitis, she guessed, or maybe pneumonia. It's not like I had a fever or anything. It's not like I was really sick. I was still going to work every day, right? No fever, right? So, she gave me a five day course of heavy-duty antibiotics, an inhaler, some pills for the cough and sent me on my way.

I cannot remember if she ever listened to my chest. I know that she never ordered an x-ray. It never even came up in conversation.

On August 8th, on the verge of a long planned vacation, I called back to the doctor's office and talked to their "Triage Nurse." I explained, between coughs, that I'd taken the antibiotics but I was feeling worse. Could I, I wondered, still make the trip to Pennsylvania or . . .

"Oh yes, go," she told me. "You have to give the drugs time to work. It's only been a few days, so go and enjoy yourself."

So, I did. Coughing all the way and probably scaring a few close friends and family members with my spectacular hack-a-thons. My folks offered to send me to their doctor, but I declined, for no good reason. Looking back, I can admit that I was literally dying on my feet, but y'know, I didn't want to be a bother or anything.

On the way back, I blacked out briefly while driving through Chicago. Not optimal. But, I had to work the next day, so I soldiered on, made it home, wheezed through a long night, went to work as planned, and immediately afterward drove myself to the local Urgent Care Clinic, coughing and breathless and wobbling apologetically. "I can't get any air," I wheezed by way of introduction. Urgent Care upgraded me to the Emergency Room. Stat.

The doctor on duty was a nice guy, short cropped hair and professionally courteous without being stodgy. He listened to me huff out my history and hauled out his stethoscope. Deep breaths, he said, listening to my back. I did my best. Then he moved around to the front. Deep breaths, he said again. Again, I did my best.

After a moment, he took the stethoscope away with a puzzled look, disassembled it, reassembled it and tried again. Deep breaths.

"I think we need an x-ray," he finally mumbled. Twenty minutes later, we were standing in front of a computer screen looking at the results. Where my right lung was supposed to be, there was a white expanse of . . . stuff. The left lung, clear of debris, waved to me cheerily from the monitor. Of my heart, we could see maybe half.

In a state of shock not dissimilar to my own, the doctor admitted that he'd guessed I had a touch of pneumonia right up until he tried to listen to the right hand side of my chest and . . . heard absolutely nothing.

Nothing at all.

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