13 May 2019

Living in fear

I expected to have to be patient as I sat down in the waiting room of the hospital. I had almost hoped the nurse who had checked me in at the emergencies desk knew of the Disney marketing technique, whereby announced waiting times at theme park attractions are displaying longer durations than what people truly have to wait for, so they feel better about the line going quicker. Alas that wasn't the case and two hours passed by before I could see anyone.

It was a sunny yet surprisingly chilly Sunday afternoon in those early days of May. My plans had been to get a glimpse of my sister by meeting her for an hour or so at a train station in downtown Paris. It wouldn't prove the most convenient – my day would be cut in half, I would also have to travel two hours – but I tried to seize every opportunity I had to meet family members. Persistent pain in my chest annulled that meetup, replacing it with increasing anxiety that something had gone wrong again with my lungs. I didn't want to go to the hospital as much as I knew I had to, as there was no other way for me to understand what was going on inside my body. Thoughts were rushing in my head, anticipating I would have to cancel all upcoming flights and dreading the upcoming post-surgery pain.

I expressed my concerns to my mother who gave me no choice but to head to the same old public hospital I had been to before. It was a logical decision considering my medical history. Stress mingled with fear overwhelmed me. Resisting an additional feeling of guilt proved futile: a few days prior, my foam surfboard had mildly hit my chest, right where I was feeling specific pain (or was it only psychosomatic?). But what was done was done. I had to now bear the consequences and go through the motions of the usual X-ray of my thorax to discover what was possibly wrong.

The TV in the waiting room was blasting its load of documentaries on the work of Australian airport customs, on medical stuff I don't recall. I didn't want to watch any of it but I kept hearing the sound in my back – I had forgotten my headphones and anxiety was preventing me from reading more than a few lines of Bret Easton Ellis's new book, White. Multiple cursory looks at the waiting room's furniture and patients became my pastime. Chairs looked like a heterogeneous ensemble of school chairs. An old man whose forearm was bleeding after a gardening accident was accompanied by his kind bourgeois neighbours. Two brothers in their sixties attending to their mother came back from a smoke, making me cringe at the overbearing smell of tobacco on their clothes.

It was finally my turn. But that was a false alarm. I was locked in a "box", a tiny room with a hospital bed, being told to wait for the doctor. Another thirty minutes passed. To my surprise, the doctor started doing an ultrasound check of my chest – after figuring out how to operate the machine for almost ten minutes. The verdict came in a few moments later: "air flow looks good, I can't see any sign of pneumothorax". I wasn't relieved yet, promptly asking whether such ultrasound analysis would be enough, as I had never undergone it previously, except for detecting the stone in my kidney. As it turns out, ultrasounds can give some indication, but would be followed by the traditional X-ray. My stress levels remained the same. I had had bad surprises in the past: some tests wouldn't detect issues while others subsequently did.

This time I didn't have to wait for long to be escorted to the X-ray room. At least here they had the key to it, unlike in Cambodia. But the forty-minute wait afterwards proved unbearable. I came to realise how I would always be living in fear. I would never be able to self-diagnose because my previous pneumothorax attacks had felt differently: from a difficulty to breathe to the point of collapsing, to some slight chest pain. And what did I know, what if the pain could materialise in yet another way? As often when those thoughts crossed my mind, which was often the case when undergoing other health problems, I questioned how I was spending my life – not doing what I truly wanted to do during my waking hours. And as always, I would do very little to nothing about it, too weak and too fearful to change the status-quo. However much I could physically or mentally suffer, nothing proved a strong-enough incentive for me to operate small or radical changes to my life. As I often said to close friends, "I am incredibly free but a prisoner of my own mind". Worst of all, I felt I couldn't complain about anything, considering how privileged I saw my existence to be – and to whom would I complain anyway, since I didn't believe in any god and it had been a long time since I was a child?

The doctor was ending her shift at 6pm and would transfer my case to the next doctor on call. When waiting for a final answer on what was wrong with me, anything had a habit of annoying me, including a change of doctors. What if the next doctor didn't look carefully enough? Couldn't they take the time to look together at the X-ray to be absolutely certain, as they had done two years ago when they confirmed my right lung was indeed affected? The minutes towards 6pm ticked away. As usual, most patients around me were significantly older. I felt out of place, unlucky. My place didn't belong here, yet. The new doctor came to me. He reassured me, no pneumothorax could be seen, it was all good, the pain was possibly explained by some usual slight rib cage trauma, but in any case, nothing to worry about.

I was off the hook this time. But for how long?

[Continued in part 2]