Here's looking at you

Yesterday was Earth Day, and I spent the day at home nursing a cold rather than participating in the March for Science on Boston Common. As I skimmed friends’ photos and social media posts, I told myself I was there in spirit: scientists, after all, share many of my passions, and before I ended up as an English major, I’d briefly intended to major in biology. Although my spirit was willing to convene on the Common yesterday with other science-supporters, however, my cold-clogged lungs were weak.

Amber magnified

I’m careful about colds: as an asthmatic, I have to be. Two and a half years ago, I almost died from a cold that settled into my lungs: when I showed up at my doctor’s office breathless and trembling, my doctor checked my blood oxygen levels and marveled I’d been able to drive my car without passing out. Two and a half years ago, my doctor saved my life through the miracle of science: two nebulizer treatments and a round of antibiotics he urged me to start the second the pharmacist filled the prescription. Because of science, I didn’t die from a cold that developed into bronchitis, as many folks did in the days before modern medicine.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

As a student of American literature, I’m saddened by the now-curable maladies that routinely claimed lives in the nineteenth century. When Samuel Clemens was 11 years old, for example, his father got caught in a rainstorm and died of pneumonia. Three of young Clemens’ siblings had died from childhood diseases, so he did his part to help support his widowed mother by dropping out of school and becoming a newspaper apprentice. Young Samuel Clemens grew up to become Mark Twain, but how might his life have been different if his siblings and father had survived?

Harvard Museum of Natural History

In the days before modern medicine, lethal dangers lurked everywhere. Henry David Thoreau’s brother, John, died from tetanus, which he contracted after cutting himself while shaving, and Thoreau himself battled tuberculosis–consumption, a positively Victorian ailment–for much of his adult life. Thoreau’s case strikes me as particularly tragic, as the bronchitis that ultimately led to his death started as a cold he’d caught after a late-night hike.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

If the Thoreau brothers were alive today, John’s tetanus would have been prevented by a vaccine and Thoreau’s bronchitis treated with antibiotics. Had Henry Thoreau survived the bronchitis that took his life, what more might he have accomplished? Thoreau was more than a writer: he was also a citizen-scientist whose meticulous records of the blooming times of wildflowers in and around Concord, Massachusetts continue to contribute to our understanding of the evidence-based reality that is climate change. Had Thoreau lived to a ripe old age, who knows what more he might have contributed.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

It strikes me as deeply ironic and downright sad that science-deniers doubt so selectively. Donald Trump doesn’t believe the science behind climate change, but believes the science that flies his plane to and from Mar-a-Lago nearly every weekend, and he believes the science behind his smartphone’s Twitter app. Trump doesn’t believe the scientists who have proven vaccines don’t cause autism, but he trusts the scientists who developed the drug he takes to combat baldness. Apparently Trump believes saving his hair is more important than saving the planet.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

Before I was prescribed one of the asthma medication I currently take, I couldn’t walk a block without getting winded. As he wrote me a prescription for montelukast, my then-doctor said he had met at a conference one of the researchers who had helped develop it. “They deserve a Nobel Prize,” he proclaimed, and I agree. Whenever I swallow my daily asthma meds or take a puff from my rescue inhaler, I silently bless the scientists who developed the drugs that literally put air back in my lungs. Science isn’t some abstract, Ivory Tower pursuit: it’s an endeavor that saves and improves the quality of actual people’s lives.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

Everyone is free, of course, to follow the alternative facts of their choosing, but I sure as heck hope my mechanic, surgeon, plumber, and pilot root themselves in evidence-based reality: give me facts over alt-facts any day. In the Bizarro World that is Trump’s America, some folks believe the bolder the Tweet, the “truthier” it is. But a loud lie is still untrue, regardless of how many people fall for it. There might be a sucker born every minute, but I hope a couple of scientists are born just as often, too.

Click here to see more photos from a 2014 trip to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Enjoy!

See you next year

Every autumn, my lungs remind me of my mortality.  My asthma is well-managed in the summer, when I can go weeks without using my inhaler, but come October (or Cough-tober, as I informally call it), my asthma reappears and I have to use my inhaler on a daily basis.  I don’t know if my asthma returns because of the drop in temperatures, the allergens in falling and decaying leaves, or the change in humidity, but I don’t need to look outside to know when autumn’s arrived:  my tight and wheezy lungs will tell me.

Morning light

Every time I take a puff on my inhaler, I appreciate the irony of being a meditator–a person whose spiritual practice centers on the breath–who sometimes can’t breathe. In the autumn when my asthma returns, I’m reminded of how precious every single breath is. When you find yourself breathless, you realize how tenuous your existence is, your life nothing more than a single puff.

Emerging tulip leaves

I’m allergic to the dust, mold, and dead leaves that lie underneath the melting snow. Every spring when the snow starts to melt, my lungs react with chronic coughing and congestion. I love the liberation of early spring–a time when you can cast off coats and boots in favor of sandals and T-shirts–but my lungs do not agree, growing tight and wheezy at intermittent and unpredictable moments throughout the day.

Lone crocus

In early spring, my asthma inhaler is my best friend, giving almost instant relief every time I take a hit. In spring, I don’t venture far without an inhaler: I have one in my purse, another in a bedroom drawer, and others stashed throughout the house like nip bottles hidden by an alcoholic.

At some point later in the spring when fresh green growth has covered last year’s moldy leaves, I’ll be able to get through the day without coughing. But for now, my body reacts and rebels against the musty dust that emerges from underneath the season’s old snow.

I wrote this post during a five-minute timed freewrite in one of my Writing Workshop classes today, in response to the prompt “Underneath.”

Doctor's office decor

I spent most of the morning at my doctor’s office receiving not one but two nebulizer treatments for asthmatic complications from a cold turned respiratory infection. When you take a nebulizer treatment, you basically spend five minutes breathing through a plastic mouthpiece connected to a machine that pumps a bronchodilator into your lungs. As I sat and did nothing but breathe this magic-working mist, I could immediately feel my congested lungs start to open. The treatment also gave me ample opportunity to examine my doctor’s office decor, most notably a print of Norman Rockwell’s “Before the Shot,” which depicts a skinny boy with dropped pants seriously scrutinizing his doctor’s credentials before allowing him to administer an injection.

This is my Day Six contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Modica Way

It’s only the second week of the so-called spring semester, and I’m already sick. Over the weekend, I noticed the first signs of a sore and scratchy throat, and by Monday I’d descended into full-on bronchitis, which is what you get when you couple the common cold with chronic asthma. This week I’ve experienced lots of coughing and wheezing, relatively little sniffling and sneezing, and a renewed sense of gratitude for my rescue inhaler.

Modica Way

On Tuesday and Thursday I managed to get through my classes with only occasional bouts of coughing interspersed with strategically-timed inhaler hits. But I’m still weak as water, my lungs simply not working as well as they do when I’m healthy. There’s nothing like a cold, a bout of bronchitis, or an asthma attack to remind you of the (literal) power of a single breath. Every time I hack up a dime-sized glob of gluey goo, I marvel that I can breathe at all through such gunk, and I realize why every time I’ve tried to nap this week, it’s felt like I’m drowning, the phlegm in my lungs pooling whenever I try to lie down.

Modica Way

I’m aware of the bitter irony of being a Zen practitioner with a chronic lung condition. In the warm months, my asthma is largely controlled, but in the winter, my lungs proclaim themselves as my true master. It doesn’t matter whether my spirit is willing: if my lungs are weak, they get the last (gasped) word. In an ideal world, I’d be able to breathe deeply and without impediment all year round; in an ideal world, breathing would always come as easily to me as (yes) breathing. Instead, there is perhaps a strange appropriateness in the medical hand I’ve been dealt: because breathing doesn’t always come easily to me, I’m acutely aware of it, closely monitoring each rise and fall for its depth and smoothness. In Zen we talk about impermanence and the fragility of human life, but as an asthmatic I understand better than most, I think, the fact that even our next breath isn’t guaranteed.

Modica Way

When I’m sick, the simple exertion of taking the dogs in and out, climbing stairs, or standing at the sink to do dishes leaves me breathless, as energetic as a limp dishrag. Is a simple virus all it takes to knock the (literal) wind out of my sails? When you stop fighting, there is a great lesson to be learned from illness: it is my body, not my mind, that makes the agenda, bringing me back time and again to the limitations of this moment. Henry David Thoreau, who struggled with tuberculosis throughout his adult life, spent his final months bedridden from the disease, no longer strong enough to take the long, woodsy walks he is remembered for. In his final journal entries, he describes in detail the behavior of a litter of kittens, his keen naturalist’s eye focused on the most mundane of domestic scenes. No matter how far our souls may wander, our bodies invariably bring us home.