Sunday, May 23, 2010

Spontaneous pneumothorax

It was a Tuesday morning in September of 1977. I woke up at approximately 9am. I was scheduled to work that afternoon, but something was wrong. I had a searing pain through my chest. A good description of the pain is that it felt like someone or something was sticking a hot sword through my chest. I would have gone to sick call, but it was already over. Unless you had a serious emergency Army sick call started at 6am and was usually over by 9am.

I had shown up late for sick call once before. When I did sit-ups after returning from Korea it felt like my gut was burning. One of the pilots in Korea told me before I left that if I had been eating in the Ville I would want to be sure that I got dewormed before I left country. I told the flight surgeon, who was new in country, on my exit physical that I should be dewormed since i was eating in the Ville a lot. He looked at me skeptically and shrugged it off as not really necessary. So I left Korea without being dewormed.

One morning I passed a nine inch round worm. It did not catch me totally by surprise since I was told I should be dewormed. I through that rascal into a baggie and headed straight to sick call even though it was almost over.

When I arrived at sick call the room was pretty much empty except for a specialist sitting behind a desk. I approached him and said I needed to see the doctor. He tried to tell me sick call was over and I needed to come back tomorrow when the doctor came out from a back room and approached the desk.

I looked at the doctor and said, "Doc I have a present from the Orient for you and it's not VD" as pulled the baggie with the worm out and tossed it on the desk.

The specialist said, "Doc, you want me to make him come back tomorrow?"

The doc's eyes grew wide as he looked at the contents of the baggie. He told the specialist no as he motioned me to come with him. It took him about 10 or 20 minutes looking through medical books before he wrote me a prescription for a small vial of gray colored fluid. He told me to take it before my next meal. The prescription did the trick causing a boatload of dead worms to pass sometime after my next meal.

Anyhow I was deliberating what I should do about the pain in my chest. It was difficult climbing out of bed, but once I was up I was able to get around okay as long as I didn't jar myself. The pain also wasn't consistent. If I jared myself, it hurt pretty bad otherwise I felt relatively fine. So, I decided to go to work and see how I made out. I figured there was no since in bothering anyone unless I really needed too.

Work wasn't too bad. I climbed up on top of the helicopter to preflight and had to step lightly when I climbed down instead of my normal jump from the last step. Flying went fine. I decided I would go to work the next day too since this day had gone okay. I saw no reason to go on sick call unless I had a real concern.

I made it through the next day okay too. I told a couple of my friends about what I was experiencing. On the third day, now Thursday, one of my friends who I had been in Korea with, Captain Norvell, asked me if I was still feeling any pain.

I told him, "yes".

He told me, "Dave, if something hurts for three days in a row, you should really go and find out why."

So with that bit of advice I decided I would get up early enough on Friday morning to go to sick call. My flight commander also farmed me out to another flight needing an extra instructor pilot that was flying nights for Friday. If I didn't have to get up so early for Army sick call I could sleep in.

My alarm woke me bright and early on Friday morning. I was completely pain free. Since I was now completely pain free I probably would not have gone to sick call except I wasn't happy about having my opportunity to sleep in interrupted, so I decided I'd still go anyhow.

I described my pain to the doctor. I told him it was now all gone. He told me it might be a little bit of pleurisy. He also wrote me a prescription for candy coated aspirin. It was candy coated to help keep it from upsetting my stomach so I was told. Along with the aspirin prescription he sent me over to Lyster Army Hospital to have a chest xray taken.

I got my prescription filled and my xray taken. Then I wasted time until showing up at the new flight to work that Friday night. It was an exceptionally stormy night. No one flew. We were dismissed early and I'm sure I went to the O Club and partied all weekend as was my habit in those days.

I was scheduled to work a "day out/night return" teaching Tactics for Monday. I flew the complete day out portion. On the first leg of the night portion I received a call on my radio from my assistant flight commander.

He said, "Dave, don't get concerned. There is nothing wrong, but the hospital thinks something is wrong with you xray film and they want you to have another xray taken. The company commander has a phone number for you back at his office. You can return to Lowe and dismiss your students then contact the company commander.

I flew back to Lowe and dismissed my students. Then I called the company commander. He had already gone home for the day. He told me the number the hospital wanted me to call was on his desk and I could come by the next morning and get it.

I thought to myself, "Alright, I don't have to work tonight. I'll head home (to my BOQ), fix some supper, then go to the O Club".

The hospital did not wait for me to call. While I was fixing my supper my phone rang. It was the hospital. They first verified that it was me. Then they asked me if I could come to the emergency room. I said okay.

The hospital was within an easy walking distance from my BOQ. I can't remember if I finished my supper first and just headed over there, but when I entered the emergency room and told them who I was. somebody asked, "Do you feel okay?'

I said, "Yea, I feel fine."

They said, "Take a deep breath."

I did.

They said, "That doesn't hurt?"

I said, "Nope".

They then took 4 or 5 more X-rays of my chest. Then someone pointed out a chair in the corner and said, "Just sit over there and don't do anything. The doctor will be here in a moment."

I took my seat and waited not having a clue as to what was going on. I truly felt fine.

The doctor showed up a short while later and began to explain to me that I had a collapsed lung and that they would have to put a tube in me to blow it back up.

"Blow it back up?" I was thinking airway and wondered if they would put the tube down my nose or down my throat, so I asked, "Where are you going to stick that tube Doc? Down my nose or down my throat?"

He said, "Neither. It's going in your side."

I said, "Oh, okay"

They then gave me a hospital gown to put on while the doctor removed a chest tube from a cabinet that was slightly smaller than the diameter of my little finger. The doctor pulled out his pocket knife and began cutting half moons out of the tube half way up. They had me first sit on a gurney. A nurse came by and gave me a shot of local anesthesia. Then they had me lie down. The doctor made a small incision in my side. Then four big ole boys gathered around the gurney to watch the doctor snake this thing into my side.

I started praying quietly to myself. The doctor gets the tube halfway inserted then paused with a quizzical look on his face. He said, "Most people would be climbing the walls about now."

I just nodded and said, "uh ugh". I didn't think climbing the walls would be helpful to what they were trying to do, so I just quietly prayed and tried to relax. It was then that I realized the four big ole boys were not there just to watch, but to hold me down if I'd been so inclined to climb the walls as the doctor mentioned.

After the chest tube was inserted they moved me to a hospital room where I spent the next four days flat on my back. I was not able to reach my light switch or my nurse call button. My pain would come and go. Usually when somebody came and checked on me my pain wasn't too bad so I never said anything.

Rick the Jesus man mentioned in "The Journey Begins..." visited me once or twice. I think he was the only visiter I had during my hospital stay.

On the forth day the doctor that had inserted the tube stopped in. He reviewed my chart and told me that I didn't need to be a martyr and that I should take some of the drugs available for pain relief to help my comfort.

I said, "Okay". I wish he would have gave me some before he did what came next.

He said, "I need to take a look at your wound."

I said, "Okay", as he began to unwrap my bandage.

When he had the bandage completely unwrapped he told me to take a deep breath. I did. Then he told me to blow it all out. As I was blowing that breath out he yanked that tube with its half moons cut halfway up its length completely out of my body with one big snatch. That was absolutely the worst pain I had ever felt in my life as those half moons rat-a-tat-tated through the exit hole. I rolled over and moaned. That pain soon passed before anyone came and checked on me. I never did take any pain medicine and was discharged bright and early the next morning.

I was grounded for approximately a three month period of time and given some extra duty so I could be worthwhile to the Army while I was unable to fly. I had to pass a pulmonary function test (PFT) prior to being reinstated to flight status. After being grounded for the designated amount of time and passing the PFT I was cleared for flight once again and back in the saddle.

This was an interesting experience. I had had a Spontaneous pneumothorax. What caused it? Who really knows. I fit the most common profile: slim young male. When I was in high school I remember riding a bucking horse and I got tossed up into the air and came down hard hitting the saddle horn with my chest. I also remember spending several hours in a soybean bin walking the beans down so they would hit the auger and get moved out and loaded into a truck. I spit black for a couple of hours after climbing out of that bin. Did any of those things contribute to my collapsed lung? Conjecture and speculation say maybe, but you can't definitively know. The doctor said there was only a 10% chance that I would ever have another one. I asked him if I could still SCUBA dive. He said, "Take your pick. Flying or diving. But, I wouldn't do both." Flying was my bread and butter. SCUBA diving was only for recreational entertainment. I sold all my SCUBA gear soon after and have not been diving since.

I would have one more spontaneous pneumothorax in the fall of 1980 while in Alaska. That's another Tall Tale for another day, but I spent 20 days in the hospital with this one and had a shot of Demerol every three hours around the clock for the whole 20 days. So, I made up for my martyrdom in the Army hospital.

That completes my Tall Tale for today... Hope you found it interesting.


1 comment:

  1. Ouch. I was just discharged a couple days ago for spontaneous pneumothorax, and I fit the profile as well (tall skinny male.)

    My recovery time was about yours. The pain from having a collapsed lung can be surprisingly bearable. (If you're reading this with any significant lung pain, go in immediately!)

    Anyway, I liked your tall tale. Here's to both of us never getting these things again! :)