One Lung Living
I am a sufferer from asthma. However, with the proper medication, I usually have been able to keep it under control. However, this past winter I suffered from an upper respiratory infection which my primary care physician strove to knock out with prednisone and a serious antibiotic. When all was said and done, the coughing was far more under control but I never really recovered from the shortness of breath. For months, I attributed that shortness of breath to my asthma, which I thought had somehow just gotten out of control.
When I finally did have an appointment with my pulmonologist, he suggested that since it had been a year since my last breath test, I should take another. Much to both of our surprise, the test indicated that my breathing capacity was half of what it was a year ago. So he listened to my lungs and grew concerned that there was far less breath noise coming from the left lung than the right. So began more serious tests. An x-ray revealed that the left side of my diaphragm was elevated up against the lung, which appeared significantly reduced. Something called a sniff test – which uses a fluoroscope, which I have not seen since the 50’s – clearly showed that the left side of the diaphragm is paralyzed. Why? We are still seeking that answer. Thank God, the most common cause – cancer – has been ruled out.
In the meantime, I basically have needed to get on with my life, primarily using only one of my lungs. Obviously, it has made a difference. I tire more easily. Indeed, I perpetually feel weary. And it does not take that much to make me breathless. Walking uphill, even with the slightest of inclines, is a chore. A short flight of stairs leaves me utterly winded. My gait is slower and walking while talking – on cell phone or in person – has become quite the challenge.
As I write this, I am on one of my mini-sabbaticals. Months ago, I had been invited by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C., to attend a two-week seminar for university faculty teaching the Holocaust. With my oldest child, Shira, living in the D.C. area, and with my commitment to Holocaust education, I have been eagerly looking forward to this experience. Well, with the onset of this lung problem, it was questionable as to whether or not I could handle all the walking and book schlepping that would be required of me, not to mention the infamous D.C. summer heat and humidity. Anticipating what lie ahead, I was on the fence – yearning to immerse myself in the seminar experience yet fearful that my body would betray me. Friends questioned the wisdom of my going ahead with these plans. But when I asked my pulmonologist, he told me that I would regret passing up such an opportunity. Therefore, as long as I took it slow and listened to my body, I should go for it. So I did!
I write this article having finished the two-week program, on the night before I return to the Quad Cities. Physically speaking, this has not been an easy two weeks. Even though I was born and raised in the ultimate city – New York – still, living in a small city such as Davenport, where one drives everywhere they wish to go, it is easy to forget how labor intensive it is to travel by public transportation. The walks to and from the Metro (the D.C. subway system), with a backpack filled with papers and books slung over my shoulder, in the heat and humidity which even mark the Washington mornings, were in and of themselves exhausting, and breathtaking (but not in the “My, how beautiful!” sense of the word). Invariably, by the time I reached the classroom at the Museum, I was soaked in sweat. And if that were not challenge enough, anyone who knows the D.C. Metro system, knows that it runs deep underground, with major escalators transporting passengers to and fro. However, as those who know the system can attest, those escalators are often non-functioning. With one lung working, I quickly found that a dead down escalator was no fun, but manageable. A dead up escalator, on the other hand… But when all was said and done, the very fact that I enter these words into my keyboard is testimony to the fact that I have survived.
As with most of the challenges of our lives, embedded in their difficulties are important life lessons. This challenge was no exception. There is much I have learned from my Washington experience, out of the classroom as well as within it.
First I have learned that it can be all too easy to surrender to our challenges. We can permit them to overwhelm us and immobilize us even before we attempt to confront them. “This will be too much for me!” we say as we convince ourselves to step back and aside. We play it safe and by so doing, we avoid the pain that comes with facing the difficulty head on. But we also avoid the multiple benefits of moving forward with our lives. I could have passed on the seminar, staying safe and secure in my home in Davenport; never expending myself beyond the slightest huff or puff. I most certainly would have been more comfortable. But there would have been so much more that I would have denied myself. First of all, there would have been the seminar, which was great! Great teachers. Great colleagues and new friends. Great new insights into a subject that really moves me. Then there would have been the quality time I spent with Shira; the weekday dinners and the weekend outings. On the last 5 days, Gail and Helene joined us. What a special time the four of us shared; something which we do not get the opportunity to do that often any more. Then there was Washington itself. I never tire of this city. There is so much to do here, and especially to learn. Every visit is a growth experience. I could have taken the easy way out and stayed safe at home, but then I would have missed all of these wonderful experiences. The benefits were most certainly worth the physical price I had to pay.
Second, I learned that there is a difference between listening to my body and surrendering to it. My body has been telling me to slow down – not stop! So I have had to learn to slow down. My gait these days is definitely slower. It is more of a meander than a march. Yet I can still move forward without completely losing my breath as long as I can accept that slower pace and as long as I give myself more time to get where I am going. Even so, it was somewhere between ironic and comic that I found that while walking the streets of Washington, at this much slower pace, still there were those people – able bodied people – who walked even slower than I; they had two good working lungs (or so I assumed) but still I outpaced them! Slower does not necessarily mean last, but even if it does, it is the getting to where you are going that counts.
All this has made me reconsider how much so many of us push ourselves. We are driven, but in truth it is also we who are the drivers. And where does it get us? More often than not, to the very same place we would wind up if we simply slowed down and chose not to tear our bodies and our lives apart in the getting there. All the time, people say “What’s the hurry?” but how many of them really mean it? Yet that is really one of the most important questions of our lives. “What is our hurry?” Why must we transform our lives into races? If only we would choose to slow down, we might find a heck of a lot more to enjoy along the way. And God knows, neither our bodies nor our souls would need to suffer the wear and tear of it all.
Third, and perhaps most important of all, we must learn to play with the hand that has been dealt us. I do not know what caused the left side of my diaphragm to stop functioning. So far, the doctors do not know either. Is it something I did or is it just a freak happenstance? Admittedly, I cannot say the same about my obesity (and I think about that a lot these days), but about my lung right now I can say it. Of course I want to repair the damage but it may not be reparable. If it isn’t, I will have to learn to live with it. I will have to figure out how best to treat it; how far I can take it and how can I avoid doing further damage. But that does not mean that my life as I know it has come to an end. I cannot cry over it. I just have to move forward with it. And I most certainly cannot give up seeking a means to repair it. When conventional medical treatment runs its course, I will turn to non-conventional treatment. I will do this for as long as such a pursuit does NOT interfere with my living as full a life as I can, in the moment. What I mean by that is that I will not surrender my life to the quest for a cure, but will continue that quest as long as it enhances my life and does not detract from it.
For the important thing about life is actually living it. Not just enduring it or expending it, but living it; making the moments and the minutes and the hours and the days and the weeks and the months and the years matter. As a rabbi, one of my most painful duties is trying to offer comfort to those elderly congregants who have become so afflicted that while they maintain a biological life, they have lost any semblance of a quality of life. Having had the privilege of serving my congregation for 25 years, I have enjoyed knowing these individuals in the fullness of their lives. But now, to watch them transformed into empty breathing, heart beating shells, simply breaks my own heart. That is not a fate I wish for myself or anyone I love. Yet as I spend time with such people, they teach me still – in their silence and their vacant stares, they teach me. They teach me that I must make the most of my life while I still have the ability to do so, for when that ability is gone, it is gone. All that will remain will be the mark I have left on those whose lives I have touched – hopefully in more positive than negative ways – while I was still capable of being a vibrant actor upon this stage. When it comes to that type of living, no malady such as a bum lung is going to get in my way. I will not let it. Rather, I choose to play the hand that’s been dealt me and carry on as best I can, given the circumstances.
I know not what the future holds for me but this I do know. I will choose to make the most of whatever I have, challenges not withstanding. That is what living a full life is all about. If it has taken the loss of the use of one of my lungs to drive home that lesson for me, then so be it. I am grateful for the insight.
Tags: Gail Karp, Health Challenges, Helene Karp, Henry Karp, Holocaust, Living a Fuller Life, Quad Cities, Shira Karp, Temple Emanuel of Davenport, United State Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DCYou can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.