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.

Explore posts in the same categories: Gail Karp, Health Challenges, Helene Karp, Henry Karp, Holocaust, Living a Fuller Life, Quad Cities, Shira Karp, Temple Emanuel of Davenport, Uncategorized, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC

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10 Comments on “One Lung Living”

  1. jorge bassuk Says:

    Dear Rabbi Karp I am one of you probably many silence readers but I’ll break my silence because I believe you should ask your doctor and explore the possibility of placing a pacemaker in the diaphragm.They have been using that procedure for decades in newborns that are born without the phrenic nerve which is the nerve that inervates the diaphragm.Childrens Memorial Hospital in Chicago might do that procedure.I believe that with the pacemaker you’ll be able to live an almost normal life.

    • ravkarp Says:

      Dear Jorge, Thank you for your concern and your caring advice. I have an appointment with a neurologist on July 6. When I meet with him, I will pass on your recommendation about the pace maker. First, I suspect, he will need to determine whether or not the paralysis is neurologically based. I will keep you informed of what progress is made. Gail joins me in sending our love to both you and Bobbi. We so deeply regret that we will not be able to join you in Israel for Lizzie’s wedding. It seems like only yesterday that the children were splashing around in your pool!

  2. Kaaren K. Says:

    Dear Rabbi,
    I so enjoyed reading your One Lung article on your blog. I hope you get the use of your lung back but if not, you’re doing great and life is still good, very good. I lost a lung for another reason and always wonder how it is for others, since I know how it is for me.
    Anyway, I just wanted to make contact and hail you for saying so very well many of the thoughts that I have had but could not express as beautifully.
    With warm regards,

    • ravkarp Says:

      Dear Kaaren,
      Thank you for your kind words. I was very touched by your taking the time, not only to find and read my blog entry, but to comment on it as well. I am all the more touched by your comment that what I had to say reflected some of what you have been feeling. Please know that you have my fullest support. I am humbled in your presence, for while I have some chance of regaining the use of my lung, your lung is lost and you have been able to move forward with your life, both living with your loss and compensating for it so as not to let it diminish you.
      Once again, thank you for reaching out to me.
      Rabbi Henry Jay Karp

  3. Daina Says:

    Dear Rabbi,
    Thank you so much for starting your blog. I had to have my right lung removed in November of 2010 because of a benign tumor growing in the wrong place. I was so very grateful to hear no cancer also, but still had to go through loosing my lung and all that entails. God has been so huge in this whole thing for me and I’m so encouraged by what you wrote in the paragraphs above. I’m so glad you chose to go to Washington DC and didn’t give into the desires to stay safe at home. I can especially relate to the lessons you’ve learned through all of this. I had been just enduring life and not really living it up until last November. Although I still have a lot of discomfort God is dealing with me every day on actually slowing down and living my life now. Slowing down is a given. Hard to move very fast with only one lung, but it is getting better. Starting to live my life instead of just going through the motions is very different for me and I find it hard to express that to other people. I think that’s why I was so excited to read your blog. Looks like you get it. Thank you and please don’t stop here. Keep writing and keep living life – one breath at a time if you have too.
    God bless you,

    • ravkarp Says:

      Thank you, Daina, for sharing your story with me, and for your kind words about my posting.

      My heart goes out to you. Your situation is far more challenging than mine, for your lung is gone forever while I still have a chance to reclaim mine. In fact, tomorrow morning, I will be meeting with a surgeon and the University Hospitals in Iowa City to see whether or not I can undergo a surgery which would bring down my left diaphragm and from its current position, up in my chest cavity, and implant on it/within it a pacemaker which would, in effect, bring my left lung back “on line.” If it works, I will never take my lungs for granted again!

      In the meantime, I have been going to respiratory therapy. At first I was dubious about this. After all, such programs gernerally are populated for the most part by the elderly who are struggling with breathing issues which often accompany advanced age. Indeed, when I first visited the therapist, hanging on the wall was a tee shirt which read “Old Wheezers Club.” At 60, I do not count myself within that population. Considering the questions I was asked, I seriously wondered whether or not this therapy center was equipped to handle a case such as mine. However, what I have found is that a good deal of the therapy involves strength training – like a low key gym; one where they constantly check your oxygen levels (under 90 means that you need to go on oxygen), your blood pressure, and are constantly checking your perception of the level of difficulty of the exercise and how short of breath you feel, in order to prevent you from going into repiratory crisis. My wife does not fully grasp what such exercise has to do with breathing, and expects that at respiratory therapy one should be focusing on breathing exercises, but I have begun to get it. For what we need is to get strong. We need to build up our physical capabilities so that we can sustain them even with our limited breathing abilities. We must do this slowly and methodically, so that our bodies can adapt. But the key here we need to learn to be able to do more, even though we are one lung short. Even in the short time that I have been attending these sessions, I already feel a difference. So I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for people like us just to get physically stronger. But I also must emphasize this is best done under professional supervision.

      I pray that you will continue down the path of reclaiming your life. Slower can actually be better. Talk about taking the time to smell the roses! Good luck and God bless you!

      • Daina Says:

        Thank you again for the encouragement and I will be praying that you get your lung back on line soon. What a blessing that will be. I am exercising but not as regularly as I should. I’m attempting a 12 mile bike race the end of August for curing diabetes. I’m up to 4 miles and pushing slowly towards 12. Slower is better and they told me in the hospital that when I start running out of breath, or oxygen I need to smell the roses and blow out the candles. It actually works to help regain oxygen. So yes, I am taking the time to smell the roses – in more ways than one. I’ll be praying for you tomorrow. Good luck and God’s peace for you and your family.

      • ravkarp Says:

        You are welcome! I look forward to the day when both of us can proclaim that we are living full lives!

  4. Daina Says:

    Dear Rabbi,
    I was just thinking about you today and wondering if your appointment went well with the surgeon at the University Hospital. I’m so hoping for good news for you. Getting your lung back online would be such an amazing blessing and I’ve been praying that God would grant that to you. I also wanted to thank you for your post on the Gift of Elul. I had never heard of that before and was intrigue by reading about it. Please keep me on any of your upcoming posts. I love learning and your post was very enjoyable to read and I learned so much! I hope all is well with your continued therapy and that breathing has become easier for you every day.

    • ravkarp Says:

      Dear Daina,
      Thank you for your good wishes regarding my health. I truly appreciate your prayers.
      As far as my appointment with the surgeon is concerned, he did recommend surgery. He feels almost certain that the nerve leading to the left side of the diaphragm is dead. Therefore that side of the diaphragm will no longer be functional. He also feels that the current position of the left side of the diaphragm does not only keep my left lung in a contracted position but is also restricting my right lung for operating fully. The surgery he recommends is one in which he will pull down the diaphragm and sew it tight in the lower position. This will allow the left lung to expand to its full size and free up the right lung to operate fully. While the left diaphragm will no longer operate, still I will get some more use out of the left lung by virtue of the other muscles involved in breathing. The only catch is that this is such a rare condition that this surgeon – who is extremely capable and has an excellent reputation – only performs this procedure about once every other year. Therefore, before we go ahead, we will be contacting the Mayo Clinic for a second opinion. It is my hope that I can have this surgery in the middle of November (since my calendar up until that point makes it very difficult to have it sooner).
      I also want to thank you for your kind words about my posting, “The Gift of Elul.” I am thrilled that you find my writings so interesting.
      You ask that I keep you apprised of future postings. Well, the blog gives you the opportunity to subscribe to it. By so doing, you will be notified whenever there is a new posting or a new comment.
      Once again, thank you for your caring and support.

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