Living With COPD: Would I Be That Brave?
I recently read a letter in a syndicated advice column from a person who attended a play in a major American city and was annoyed by another playgoer's oxygen machine. The letter writer reported that a machine "gasped loudly every 10 seconds." This person went on to say, basically, that the noise ruined their entire experience. The writer was now asking for advice about what she should have done; also asking why can't people with these types of devices be asked 1.) To not attend the play, 2.) Sit in the back of the theater, or 3.) Turn off the machine?
You know, it's not hard for many of us to understand this kind of thinking. After all, tickets for big city plays are rather pricey, and we want to get the most out of the performance. Furthermore, we're being courteous, sitting quietly, turning off our cell phones in order to not distract those around us, and then somebody comes in with something like this. Why don't these people just stay home?
But...let's turn it around for a minute. I must ask myself, what if that were me? What if I were the one needing supplemental (and it is supplemental because we all need oxygen to live) oxygen to get around and breathe well enough to enjoy the little pleasures in life? What if it were me? If I struggled for every breath, Would I be that brave?
Folks with COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, an umbrella term for emphysema and chronic bronchitis) and other lung diseases often become isolated because getting around (or just doing anything, for that matter) can be so difficult. Consider this: Some people with these disorders spend half a day just taking a shower, getting dressed, fixing a small meal, then eating it, only to be breathless and exhausted. This is an everyday - all day - fact of life for many people with chronic lung disease, and for those of us with able breathing, it's pretty much impossible to even imagine. If I lived each day in fear that I wouldn't have enough breath to get through a simple day at home, then had a chance to go out for a special occasion, would I have the guts to do it? Would I be that brave?
Able breathers take a lot for granted. For a night out, we rush around, get dressed, scurry to the car, drive to the mall, movies or ball game, park the car, and walk to the event. We don't put much thought or planning into how much energy it will take to get ourselves ready, then get there - or if we'll have enough breath to do it. The person with limited breathing must consider: Will heavy traffic make our ride longer? Once we park, will there be a long walk (longer than 800 feet is a problem for many)? Will there be stairs? Will there be a ramp (for some, a ramp is harder to navigate than steps)? Will something happen to cause me to completely run out of air? If so, then what? If I do get to the event with breath to spare, how far will I have to walk to my seat? Where are the rest rooms? Will I feel well enough to enjoy the event once I'm seated? To take all this on...Would I be that brave?
The oxygen device used by the person attending this performance was most likely an oxygen-conserving device, which provides oxygen only when the person inhales, thus the "puff" sound. The reason people use conservers is that with this system the oxygen does not flow constantly, but intermittently, so the oxygen supply lasts longer. Keep in mind that for the person using supplemental oxygen he or she must plan ahead for this oxygen supply as well, calculating the length of time needed to get to the vehicle, drive to the venue, park, walk to the theatre or concert hall, enjoy the performance, and then get back home - things that us able-breathers take so much for granted. Until quite recently, the only option for people needing supplemental oxygen was a big, heavy, green tank. The new oxygen systems are better (but not perfect) and allow some degree of freedom.
"Well," we might say, "I know just what they did to get into this situation in the first place. "They smoked, and they did it to themselves. They deserve it."
Hold on a minute here. Do we really know that - for sure? Not all people who now need extra oxygen were smokers - and even if they were, does that somehow make us better than them? Many people who have smoked heavily in the past are still breathing just fine. They lucked out. Others have a predisposition (sometimes genetic) to develop lung problems. Some people who have never touched a cigarette have severe, incurable lung disease with no known cause. Many others have worked hard, supporting their families, earning an honest living by working in hazardous environments such as foundries or mines, shops and factories making furniture, fiberglass, tools, textiles, paper, even candy. Think of the World Trade Center rescue workers. How about soldiers who smoke to stay awake for days on end, then breathe toxic fumes in battle? And let's not forget those (our parents and grandparents) who smoked at a time when the dangers of smoking were unknown then denied, and those who were encouraged by their own doctors, the military - even their parents - to smoke cigarettes. If I had a physical limitation brought on by one of these circumstances, yet wished to participate in the outside world only to be looked down upon by those I met, Would I be that brave?
Why are we often so quick to place blame? Is it because when we see something unsettling, we're quick to explain it away - in a way, of course, that says it could never happen to us. We take the easy way out. We blame others for causing their own circumstances in order to make ourselves feel better - to make ourselves feel safer.
We must be careful to not be so sure we know how people got their lung disease. And we must never be so smug to believe that we've never done anything to compromise our own health. Have we ever had a habit of eating fatty or salty foods? Have we ever spent too much time in the sun? Have we ever been in a moving car without wearing a seatbelt? Any one of these choices might have lead to significant illness, or even death.
So, the next time we see somebody out in public wearing oxygen - or impaired in any way, for that matter - let's hold our judgment. And you know what else? It wouldn't hurt to just be nice and hold the door. We don't know what life circumstances have lead that person to this place, at this moment in time - and we never know what might happen to us tomorrow. Instead of asking, "Why do these people have to come out and get in my way? We should ask instead, "How can I be of help - and - would I be that brave?"