Monday, May 24, 2010

Spontaneous pneumothorax #2

My first summer season in Alaska was over. The year was 1980. I was about to take a Bell JetRanger south to the lower 48 with my mechanic Tom Barclay. We had gear packed to the ceiling in the back and several extra 5 gallon cans full of jet fuel in the baggage compartment. The extra fuel would help us cover long distances between fuel stops in Canada. This would be my first trip flying through Canada. I had arrived in Alaska by commercial air travel.

Everything was ready and I hopped in to crank when I realized I had forgotten my flight helmet in the office. I told Tom I would be right back as I hopped out and ran to the office to get my helmet. In short order I was back in the helicopter and cranking it for our long flight to Provo Utah where Rocky Mountain Helicopters main corporate office was located.

On climb out I started to feel some pain in my chest that was similar to the pain I had felt in 1977 while in the Army when I had a spontaneous pneumothorax. I told Tom what I was feeling and I told him about my previous experience. I also told Tom that the only way you could know for that you had a collapsed lung was by getting a chest xray. I told him rather than make a big deal about something that could turn out to be nothing that I would just plan on stopping in at some hospital along the flight back to the lower 48 and have a chest xray taken to find out for sure if we needed to bother anyone. He didn't say anything and went along went my plan, but later he told me he was trying to figure out how he could dump me out the door and get behind the controls before the helicopter crashed incase I passed out or worse. He had a little bit of stick time so there might could have been a very slim chance that he could have been successful if the need arose.

Years later a medic with no stick time asked if it was possible to shove the pilot out and get behind the controls and save the day if the pilot died. I looked at him and smiled as I said, "If that happens, the pilot dies first and the medcrew dies second. There is no chance in the world you can pull that off".

Our first stop would be Northway Alaska where we would refuel and I would have to file a flight plan so we could go through customs once we got into Canada. Northway was not large enough to have a hospital and I figured Whitehorse Yukon Canada would be the first place where I could get a chest xray.

We arrived at Northway without incident. Before I shutdown the aircraft I had Tom get out and place a couple of bricks where I then landed with my right skid on them so the aircraft had a tilt that would allow the fuel tank to take on a little extra fuel. After shutting down, I left Tom to refuel the aircraft while I walked in to the building to use the phone so I could call flight service and file the needed flight plan.

On my walk to the building the pain was incredible. This was definitely different than the first time where I was able to ambulate okay and felt no pain as long as I didn't jar myself. When I finally got to the telephone I was hurting so bad that the only person I called was my boss, Gene Franks, to tell him I was having serious problems and probably wouldn't be flying anywhere else. Gene said he would try to take care of getting me transportation to a hospital.

When I hung up the phone I headed back out to the aircraft to tell Tom what was going on. It was still a very painful walk. When I got within 20 feet of the aircraft my legs gave out and I hit the tarmac. Tom came over to me saying, "Davy, are you okay?"

I was laughing and crying at the same time. I was laughing because I thought it was silly I couldn't walk another 20 feet and I was crying because it hurt so bad. Tom summoned some assistance. They soon loaded me into a fixed wing aircraft and flew me to Anchorage Alaska.
Mt McKinley as seen from Anchorage
I ended up in Providence Alaska Medical Center where I was given a private room with a view of Mount McKinley.

It was confirmed that I did have another spontaneous pneumothorax. My options were discussed. With the second occurrence I would have to have it surgically corrected if I wanted to get my flight medical back. That was very important to me since flying was how I made my living. Next, if I did elect to have the surgery would I have it here in Alaska or back in the lower 48 somewhere. I decided to get out of the hospital and take a week to decide. Amazingly during that week the pain subsided. Collapsed lungs are strange things based on my experience. I sometimes wonder how many people walk around with one and don't even know it.

It was all setup for me to have the surgery done at Providence. There could be issues with flying back to the lower 48 with a collapsed lung that might complicate going that route. A bird in the hand is better than two in a bush, so I decided I would have the surgery done at Providence.

When i checked back into Providence I no longer had a private room with a view of Mount McKinley. I now shared a room with no view. It really didn't matter to me. Providence took good care of me. The wife of one of the other pilot's gave me a copy of James Clavell's Shogun and Gene Franks wife gave me a computer chessboard set, so I had plenty to occupy myself with. I always figured life can't be too bad as long as you can still read a good book and play a game of chess.

My surgery was scheduled. This would be a totally different experience from the Army hospital where I spent 4 days flat on my back unable to move. The day following my surgery they had me out of bed walking around. They wanted me to walk a little every day. I did have a complication that surfaced a couple of days after the surgery were the doc put another chest tube in me to drain off fluid. There were no half moons cut with a pocket knife this time. I ended up spending a total of 20 days in the hospital and they gave me a shot of demerol every three hours around the clock.

There was an old man on my floor named Gene whom I was told was once a successful business man that had burnt his brain out because of alcohol abuse. I watched him one day strapped in a big chair on wheels making time outside my door. He was definitely trying to go somewhere. I hollered at him, "Gene! Where you going?"

He said, "I gotta get out of here."

I would later be moved into Gene's room. A nurse came in one day to take his vitals. Gene grabbed her wrist with a vise grip and began shouting, "Get out of here! This is my room! I don't want you in here!" The poor nurse couldn't go anywhere with the vise grip hold Gene had her in even if she wanted too.

I was getting so many shots of demerol that both my shoulders and buttocks looked like pin cushions. The nurse giving the shot would always ask me where I wanted it. It didn't much matter to me. I tried to keep them spread around though.

Before moving into Gene's room they moved a man into my room that had attempted suicide. They told him to drink plenty of fluids. All he would drink was straight black coffee. He seemed to call on the nurses a lot. Once I was due for another shot of demerol. I was pressing my nurse call button and the suicide guy was pressing his for some reason and the nurses were ignoring us for who knows why. Finally my doctor walked in doing his rounds. A nurse followed him through the door with a syringe in her hand. The doctor looked down at me moaning on my bed and said, "I've never seen you look this bad." Then he looked around and spied the nurse that had followed him into the room and saw what she had in her hand. He said to her, "Here, give me that." as he took the syringe from her. He then opened a port on my IV line and inserted the syringe. There seemed like there was at least six feet of IV line, but as soon as he pressed the plunger I began to feel relief immediately.

Pretty soon I was sitting up in bed pleasantly chatting with the doctor. After that the nurses would ask me where I wanted my shot. I would tell them, "Ah, just stick it in the IV". They had orders for IM only so I never did get another shot through the IV, but I've never forgotten how much more immediate impact the shot given through the IV had.

Finally my stay in the hospital came to an end. I was given one non-renewable prescription for tylenol with codeine. Sometimes I'd take that with a beer, but I came off the demerol cold.

I told the doctor that did my thoracic surgery about the first doctor telling me I needed to choose between flying or scuba diving. This doctor said I could now do what ever I wanted. I never did try scuba diving again though.

I have no idea what my hospital stay and surgery cost. My boss told me they would take care of everything.

They all took good care of me. I would work the next summer season in Alaska where I would experience my only helicopter crash. I hope I get to return to Alaska someday before life's journey is over for me, but if I don't get to, I'm grateful for the two seasons I got to work up there. It is a beautiful and amazing place!

At the end of the second season I was asked to stay through the winter, but I was hungry for good spiritual fellowship. I enjoyed the work in Alaska, but I noticed it had a slow eroding effect on my spiritual health due to a lack of the right kind of good fellowship I hungered for and needed. So, I declined the invitation. I'll always remember the people I worked with during those two seasons and I hope they have fared well during their life's journey. If I get around to them, I have some more tall tales from Alaska I'll share someday.


ps Why the second pneumothorax? I was told I only had a 10% chance of ever having another one. Prior to going to Alaska I visited a Seismic Crew I had worked with out of Rexburg Idaho where I went out on the blasting line with the blaster to take some pictures. The blaster was crazy. He'd stand within 15 feet of the blast when he set off the charge and would disappear in the smoke. I have some old slides somewhere I need to wade through and try to convert to digital. Anyhow I was a little farther away. After he set off the first charge he told me, "Oh by the way, when these go off keep our mouth open so the air in your lungs will equalize." I thought, "Thanks, now you tell me." All seemed well though. Also I had a short bout of sickness that summer where I wore more long johns in the summer time than I ever wore back home in Louisiana during the winter. Contributing factors? Who knows...

My Alaskan doctor told me that after the corrective surgery my lung couldn't collapse again even if it wanted to. My handicapped son's last hospital stay showed me what an amazingly delicate balance the gift of life truly is and it is just a marvelous accomplishment that any of us manage to stay alive regardless of how much we take for granted this special gift bestowed upon us for a time and a season.

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