During this last summer break for the rest of our MD lives, I am conducting research in Athens. I am researching the cardiovascular response to functional electrical stimulation in patients with spinal cord injuries. One of the patients that comes in is a “regular”. He’s quite animated and all of us researchers enjoy it when he comes in. The other day, he said something to us that I think only I fully understood.
“It’s the little things that you miss the most,” he told us. He described the ability to cough. He recalled how he initially was not able to cough strongly or cough up things. I zoned out a bit as I thought back to my experiences, but I caught the end of his discussion of the topic when he said, “I miss being able to do those kinds of things. People think it’s about the big stuff like walking, but it’s the little things that you miss: being able to cough, man.”
My mother and a good friend would describe how they had to give me water with a dropper. Another good friend told me how I once woke up in the middle of the night choking and gasping for air. When the nurses rushed there, they stuck a tube down my throat and removed a tiny bit of mucus present, due to pneumonia, which had been obstructing my airway. This was all when I was delirious and coming out of a coma. I don’t remember any of it. My ribs had broken off and had punctured my lungs and my throat and airways were constricted, which I assume were a side effect of the spinal cord injury or possibly due to other injuries.
I became fully conscious and able to form memories after I reached the Shepherd Center in early June. I could not speak above a whisper and after saying a few words, I would become out of breath and fatigued. Two best friends of mine who were always there with me told me that despite this, I made sure to talk to everyone who came in. I guess I felt rude not talking to people if they came to see me—some from far away. Months later, I would receive the encouraging compliment from my therapists, “Nice sneeze!!!” if I let out anything that was even barely audible.
For a long time, I was not able to eat solid food or drink normal fluids. My food was pureed like baby food and my fluids had to be thickened with corn starch. If you read my last birthday post, you may recall that that was when I was finally allowed to eat solid food and drink normal fluids. The reason my drinks had to be thickened is because normal fluids could go down the wrong tube, causing the fluid to enter my lungs (aspiration) and making me prone to pneumonia. As stated in the birthday post, pneumonia is the number one cause of death among people with spinal cord injuries and I already had it twice.
I stated in this blog post and in this interview that even a year later, I could not talk loud and I feared running out of breath whenever I spoke. Tonight while driving, I was thinking back to what our patient had said and about my own experiences and I decided to test out how strong my lungs had become. I remembered how I had a pretty good sneeze earlier that day and I was feeling pretty cocky. So I let out a loud shout and a yell with this song playing through my speakers. If you listen to the song you can see why that's ironic. I smiled.
It’s the little things.