By Samantha Arroyo
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My eyes fluttered open, piercing the darkness above my head. Silence. The type of silence that has an eerie static that is all consuming. It occurs only with the absence of light and the solitude of darkness. It is the silence I slept to on a regular basis, when the air around me was only penetrated by the steady rhythmic sound of my breath. This moment of wakening was different. There was no sound to interrupt the stillness. There was no breath.
My eyes fluttered open and widened in panic. My hands seized my throat and desperately I struggled for air. My abdomen hardened with pain and my hands flew to the edges of my bed as I tried to sit upright. I had no strength. I could not move. I was paralyzed in a panic. My face swelled with heat and my teeth clenched as I tried to draw a single breath. I felt as though I were drowning; unable to reach the surface. Slowly, cool, clean air began to seep into my deflated lungs. When I found the strength, I heaved deeply and drank in the air around me. I began to pant and swung my legs over the side of the bed.
Alarmed, I concentrated on taking in calculated breaths. When my body seemed to recover, I gradually lowered my body beneath my sage green comforter and re-adjusted my three oversized pillows and tentatively entertained the idea of falling back to sleep. I had been so close. Right on the brink. And I was so exhausted. I just wanted to rest.
Silence surrounded my frame once again, and my mind lingered only for a moment with worry. Putting the episode behind me, I shifted into a comfortable position on my right side and invited sleep to join me. As I was on the edge of slipping into an unconscious state, my lungs seized. My heart began to race at a speed I had never experienced. Hands seemed to wrap themselves around my lungs and squeeze with such intensity . The impact stole from me my last breath. Frantically throwing off my sheets, I clamped my shaking hand to my racing heart and began to fight for breath. Every muscle in my body tensed as I shook with a new fear. I tried to scream. I tried so hard to scream, but nothing could escape my lungs. There was no one to hold me but the darkness itself. It enveloped me and silent tears coursed down my cheeks as I was sure this must be the end. But just as my body was about to forfeit the fight, air began to seep into my airways again. I sucked in every morsel and began to heave panicked breaths. I struggled to my feet and slipped into the light of the hallway. As my tears began to dry, the panic only heightened.
I padded quickly down the foyer stairs and down to the finished basement. I stood in my pajamas, shaking at the foot of the stairs when my mom took notice:
“Honey, what’s wrong?”
The moment the question was asked, tears began to trickle down my face again. “I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t breathe,” I stammered, my words trembling from my mouth.
My mom immediately stood to her feet and worry withdrew the brightness from her eyes. She followed me up the stairs and led me carefully back to my bedroom. I frantically explained what had happened, clearly distraught and confused as to the cause. My mom offered to stay with me until I fell asleep, and I quickly agreed. I needed my mother’s arms to envelope me–not the darkness.
She gently caressed my back as I sniffed back the last few sobs. I was so tired. I just wanted to sleep. I had not been sleeping well, and the exhaustion alone was bringing me to tears. It did not take long for me to take comfort in my mother’s soothing words and begin to relax. But for the third time, just as my heart was slowing, my breath escaped me, and an unbearable pain swept through my abdomen and up into my chest. My lungs froze and my muscles tensed. My mom jerked upright from beside me and asked if it was happening again. I could not respond; I could not breathe. Tears poured down my face like tiny rivers and my mother helped me sit up. I still had yet to take a breath. Broken and confused words spewed from my mouth as I tried to gain composure. My mom became frantic, “Don’t move,” she said, “I’ll be right back.”
I silently begged her not to leave. I was terrified. But I could not relinquish the words. I stumbled to the floor and put my face to the ground. My face was turning red. I could feel it. I dragged my body towards the hallway, towards the light. In seconds I heard a thundering of feet. It was the distinct sound of my dad taking the stairs two at a time. My brother was right behind him.
He flung the door open, his eyes bouncing from my bed to my sprawled body on the floor. I was panicking and had yet to take a single breath. My brother was mere steps behind him and the fear that washed his eyes contorted his face.
I do not remember what happened next. I remember a flurry of activity as orders to rush me to the emergency room were quickly discussed. I remember beginning to heave, as gradually I was able to take small, fractured breaths. I could hardly exhale. I struggled to my feet and grabbed the blanket from the foot of the bed and stumbled out of my room–away from the darkness.
It was snowing and my mom gathered her keys and escorted me to the car. Everything felt rushed. My lungs had refilled, and I felt silly for going to the hospital. My dad watched from the garage as my brother pulled on his sneakers and rushed to the car to come with us. We pulled away, and my dad remained standing there. He looked torn and scared. I had never seen him look that way. The wind whipped and sent snowflakes spinning and swirling up into snow drifts around the garage where he stood. His eyes followed the car as my mom cautiously backed the car down the driveway, the snow and ice crunching loudly beneath the tires. I waved; he just stood there.
I arrived at the hospital and described my symptoms. I signed papers. They took vitals. They gave me tired, doubtful looks. I felt ridiculous. Why am I here? They ushered me to a room after I sat in the waiting room for what seemed like hours–days even. They hooked me up to machines that stole the silence, for they beeped and groaned and blinked at sequential intervals. My mom sat uncomfortably in the chair to my left. She said I should try to sleep. I was too terrified.
The doctor arrived and swabbed my mouth and nose. Apparently they were checking for mononeucleosis and the flu. I was not aware that loss of breath was a symptom. With nothing left to say, they sent me home. Tests results to arrive shortly, they said.
Feeling even more ridiculous and beginning to succumb to the doubtful stares, I arrived home and plodded up the stairs to bed. My mom stayed with me. Just in case. She was rubbing my back when my lungs seized. For the fourth time. It was painful and my body was already exhausted from fighting the previous three episodes. My mind and body struggled to fight, but was losing. My mother became furious. Her eyes darted across my face, waiting for me anxiously for me to breathe. When I began to regain even the slightest composure, she declared we were going back to the hospital. This is serious, she said. She wanted answers.
I sauntered through the doors of the hospital wrapped in the same blanket I had arrived in just hours before. The nursing staff had changed and a new woman asked me the same questions, performed the same procedures, and had me sign the same papers. She instructed us to remain seated in the waiting room, just like before, and someone would be with us shortly.
I was given a room, but it was hours before I was seen by a doctor. My arms were burdened with the same medical instruments. I watched the red and green lines gently rise and fall as they measured my blood pressure, my heart rate, and my pulse. They assured me I was still alive. We sat for hours, and my brother and father paced the hospital corridors. Hours elapsed, and the boys decided to return home. The weather was worsening and my brother was exhausted. I was happy for them to go. I was embarrassed. I continued to apologize to my mother after they departed, and she continued to reassure me that I had nothing to be sorry for. I was unconvinced.
Various nurses continued to tell us that “someone would see us shortly” as hour after hour passed. Tensions grew and patience dwindled as the night wore on. Every so often I saw an EMT saunter by the drapes, or a herd of nurses rush down the hall. Apparently there had been a lot of accidents that night and only one medical doctor available that evening. Certainly we could understand that there were priorities in matters such as these. Certainly.
Around four in the morning, a plump older gentleman pushed the curtains aside and lowered himself into a seat beside my bed. He read aloud the details he had been given of my symptoms and asked me to describe what I was feeling in detail. My descriptions and pained expressions led me no where. Apparently the tests came back negative, much to his surprise, but not to mine. His face was puzzled and perplexed. He looked tired. Perhaps he had dealt with death that night.
He scanned my medical records and the clipboard in front of him and slowly shook his head back and forth. I looked at my mother and she scrunched her eyebrows. “I’m not really sure what the problem is,” he said. He says that these things happen, and sometimes things of this nature are unexplainable. He said it was something to “keep an eye on.” My attention fizzled at that point. Everything else in my memory registered in fragments. I remember my mother’s frustrated groans. I am ashamed to admit that I remember thinking of the doctor in vulgar terms that would be best left unmentioned. I remember it was still snowing. And I remember feeling insignificant. I remember feeling like a specimen on that white cot in that whitewashed room. I remember feeling like another case, another number, another check mark on some man’s list of things to do.
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