Body Image Issues: Forgetting the Fun-House Mirror Image of Myself

From journal #37, dated 12.14.16
Tonight I went to Aqua Zumba for the very first time. I want to discuss how it felt to get into a bathing suit for the first time in six months, and how I saw myself differently than I had in the past.

God made my body, and I almost wrecked it. I am always on the verge of wrecking it.

Tonight I put on my one-piece blue bathing suit, the one with three tones of blue that stripe obliquely across my chest and abdomen before they go horizontal across the pubic area. This year was the first year in probably nine or ten that I wore a suit like this. I still have my two-piece that looks like a one-piece with a skirt. I bought it specifically to cover my saddlebags and thighs.

When I bought the blue one-piece this past summer, before we went on our vacation to North Carolina in June, I was pleased that the tops of my thighs did not bulge out like an opened can of frozen dough does, oozing its way out of the can. Well, on second thought, may be they did ooze a little, but certainly not to the degree that they would have if I had tried on this suit a few years ago. Back then, I would have been disgusted at the sight of it. I would have angrily removed the suit, perhaps with tears filling my eyes, and placed it back on the rack, avoiding the image in the mirror that felt like a fun-house joke.

All through high school I struggled with the idea that I was fat. My butt, hips and thighs were too big. I remember thinking that if I didn’t rollerblade daily, I would get even fatter. What’s sad is when I see pictures of myself from that era, I can now see that I was NOT fat. I was a healthy 120-pound young woman who had a very nice shape. There was aboslutely nothing wrong with my body back in those days. I wasted many years thinking I was fat and ugly.

Interestingly, I became overweight after leaving high school.Very soon after I started college, I began dating a man who could really cook. My once-120 pound frame packed on an extra 20 to 30 pounds over the next year. During that first year of college, and for several years following, I felt uncomfortable. A lot. My clothes never fit right. My jeans always felt too tight. My face felt too big, too puffy. I couldn’t stand the look of myself. Later, I had my hair cut boy-short. It was not a good look for me, but by that point, I felt that it no longer mattered. I felt ugly all around. My body took on a stocky appearance. 

Now, when I see photos from that era, I see that I was never really that fat. I was definitely overweight, but not as huge as I felt. But I also remember that my knees ached a lot and I just always felt uncomfortable. I never felt good about myself during those ten years of being overweight.

Here’s the question that I now ask myself occasionally: should I have tried to embrace my size at that time? If I were to talk to a girl now who was the size that I was back then, I would say “Yes, embrace who you are. You can walk, you can move, you can keep doing these things despite your size.” At that time, I did a lot of walking and outdoor rollerblading. Even at that size (I was between a size 10 – 14, depending on the manufacturer), I was moving quite a bit.

Looking back now, I know that I was not healthy in many ways, not just physically. I was emotionally not well, so I ate. I grew out when I should have been growing up. My soul’s decay reflected itself on my outside. I felt miserable, I looked miserable, so I felt even more miserable; one of those vicious circles we sometimes battle.

The problem that I can recognize now, though, is that I was too self-conscious, too focused on my appearance. I hated how my whole body looked. Instead of being thankful for my mostly active body, I instead only saw the lumps, puckers and bulges. I completely overlooked the freedom that came with everyday movements I took for granted like walking, jogging, and rollerblading.

It didn’t help that I had the distant voices of family members and friends in my head who often berated themselves for their looks: boobs that were too small, noses that were too big, butts that were too plump, hips that were huge. These words were like a non-musical soundtrack playing throughout my childhood. I also carried mental images of the thin, willowy women from fashion magazines, lamenting that I never looked like that.

Without realizing it, I had been conditioned to have a very negative view of my body which did so much for me, for others. Instead of focusing on what I could do with my body, I instead wasted many years berating myself for how I looked.

Eventually I started dating a new guy, who is now my husband. In our earlier years, we spent a lot of our time eating out, which did not help either of us in our weight struggles. In 2006, as I completed a bachelor’s degree and also prepared for our June wedding, the stress of it all caused me to fall back very close to my high school weight. I remember, at our wedding, one of my childhood friends noted that I looked “anorexic”. I knew I wasn’t. Perhaps the last time she had seen me, I was at my chunky stage. I see pictures of myself from a walk we all had taken that wedding weekend, and even to this day I think my legs look like gigantic smoke stacks.

Even being so close to my original high school weight, I still felt fat. The loathing continued for the next nine years of our marriage.

I believe things began to change when we joined our local YMCA in October 2015. One of our first nights there, we were walking clockwise around the track, watching a Zumba class in session. I had always been curious about Zumba, and they looked like they were having fun. I got brave enough to try it another night. I remember that rush of endorphins, the “Zumba high”. I started going to the Sunday class since I wasn’t always around during the week because of my traveling job. 

I started out wearing baggy capri exercise pants, while admiring the brave women who wore tighter capris in fashionable designs. “Not me,” I reasoned, “You’ll never see me in those.” That changed around Christmas, when I bought some jogger pants before eventually buying and wearing the tighter capris out of sheer comfort (I felt too awkward from constantly pulling wedgies out of my butt with the looser pants).

I noticed some positive changes in my appearance, nothing huge. More importantly, though, I wasn’t having the back pain after injuring my back in 2014. My back, arms and legs felt stronger with the use of weight machines a few times a week. Plus, because we had a warm place to go in the winter time, within 15 minutes of our house, so we were more motivated to exercise consistently through that winter. 

But in June 2016 and again more recently, what I noticed was that I didn’t feel disgusting when I slipped into that blue one-piece bathing suit. My legs aren’t perfect, my saddlebags are not completely gone, but I feel healthier.

Now, when I look in the mirror, instead of smoke stacks, I see legs that dance, bringing me much joy in my Zumba classes. They are legs that, just a week ago, clumbed up a large sand dune near Lake Michigan and did not get tired. Those legs ran without abandon down the other side of that dune with my niece Teagan and nephew Cooper, and we laughed hysterically. 

Instead of a “muffin top” waist because of my previous back injury, I now see a waist that looks and feels a little stronger because I’m learning the value of working my core. My stomach, which used to give me many problems years ago, is now pretty calm with careful eating and increased water consumption. 

I see arms that are getting stronger and more toned. They are arms that carry groceries, hug my husband. They are arms that held hands with Teagan and Cooper as we walked in the woods one cold December afternoon.

My shoulders are nice.

I like my big, round butt!

I like that my legs still rollerblade, and they have for over 22 years.

My back feels almost normal, three years post-injury. I had expected to have constant pain for the rest of my life, as I had for the first year and half post-injury.

I am still coming to terms with my aging face, puffy eyes and graying hair. But for now, I am thankful that I can appreciate the body that God gave me, appreciate it for what it can do, instread of trashing it for how ugly I once thought it was. Perhaps I am finally learning to ignore the fun-house mirror in my head and see things as they really are.


Transitions: Molting

It usually occurs in a semi-annual rhythm, that time when our two pet birds shed old feathers as new ones grow in. We often know when they are in a molting phase because their cage bottoms are decorated with scores of tiny, discarded feathers. I imagine their skins being pricked with the pointy ends of feather shafts as they pierce through that ugly pink covering that hides under their beautiful plumage, pushing out the old feathers like decidious teeth in childhood.
It is usually an uncomfortable time, especially for our cockatiel Sobie. My husband will rub his little yellow head, and if he hits one of these nascent feathers just wrong, Sobie will give a loud shriek, expressing his discomfort. We’ve noticed that he does a lot more preening during these periods, adjusting and readjusting the feather shafts as they grow in, sometimes at awkward angles. His normally-smooth plumage takes on a ratty experiences, as if he was trying out dreadlocks, but later the new feathers open up and become part of the already-colorful landscape of his body.

In some ways, we humans molt also. Not like birds with their feathers, or snakes with their skins. We cast away old hobbies, beliefs, jobs, friends, eating habits. Often we learn to take these transitions in stride, accommodating their presence in our lives, discarding old ways to make room for the new, the way some disciplined people perform spring and fall cleaning in their homes. Sometimes, though, these transitions, while necessary, are not always comfortable, especially if they involve leaving behind something that has become familiar and “safe” in our estimation.

I thought about this as I prepare to begin a new job at a local hospital, something I didn’t think I would ever do again. I have just come through eight-and-a-half years of working as a “homecare” Respiratory Therapist, a very different environment where weekends and holidays are not spent at work (unlike the hospital setting, where weekends and holidays are spent at work). I have left behind home care in order to be home with my husband, contributing to our own community (instead of those communities in other states, where my most recent job took me every week), and taking classes at a local university in order to pursue other passions alongside the Respiratory career I’ve had for over 18 years. It is definitely a transition that I was not expecting to make right now, but God has mysteriously opened up the opportunity for it to begin. Instead of a molt lasting a few weeks, it will last a few years.

But I am excited for the new plumage that awaits at the end of this molt.

Postcards from the Sky: Journeys in Marriage

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I am one of those passengers who has my book open in my lap almost immediately after clicking my seatbelt together. But on March 15, 2016, before my flight out of South Bend, Indiana left the runway, I told God that I was willing to talk if He wanted me. It didn’t take long for me to see that His answer was, “Yes, listen.”

On Flight 4609 from South Bend to Minneapolis, I sat next to a burley man named Chase*, with clear hazel eyes and heavy eye lids, with eye lashes that swept lavishly when he blinked. We had the customary conversation about our jobs before veering into his personal territory. For a man, he was quite talkative, and I enjoyed hearing about his nine year-old daughter and thirteen year-old son. It was clear to me that he was very proud of his children and was taking great care to teach them about life.

Eventually I asked about his wife, and I was surprised when his tone changed considerably. He spoke of her in a clinical, negative way, pointing out all of her flaws as if they were diagnoses in a medical record. He said he realized shortly after marrying her that she was not the person she projected herself to be on the online dating program he used to find her. He talked about how she spends all of her time exercising, how she’s in a bad mood every time she comes home, and how she prefers the company of her girlfriends over him (and even suggested, with some embarrassment, that she had a romantic relationship with said girlfriends).

I asked a lot of questions: how they met, what activities they had in common, had they tried counseling? Typical questions. I tried to be sympathetic when possible, keeping in mind that I was only hearing one side of the story. We talked for the duration of our one hour flight, and it saddened me to hear such negativity and indifference in a marriage, especially with young children involved. I wished I could say something to help him.

Eventually I told him, unapologetically, how fortunate I was be married to a man that I considered to be my best friend, that we had several common interests and we enjoyed being around each other very much. Chase shrugged and said, “Don’t be sorry for me. I just have a typical marriage.” By this point, the plane had landed, docked at the gate, and passengers were standing as they waited to deplane.

A “typical marriage”? This is what people had to look forward to? Pitting your children against your spouse? Spending weekends away from each other? Looking forward to when the kids grow up so you can sign divorce papers? I’ve always felt fortunate to have my best friend as my husband, but after this conversation, I began to wonder if my marriage is more special than I realized.

We said our good-byes, ran to catch our connecting flights, and as I hurriedly rushed onto Flight 2243 flying to Tampa, I warned my new seatmate, named Russ*, that I would be making a mad dash to the lavatory once we were at cruising altitude. He flashed a broad, white smile and jokingly said, “I think I heard the stewardesses say that all lavatories were out of order.” Over the course of the next few hours, we talked about his current life (wife finishing Occupational Therapy school, an up-coming move to Arizona from North Dakota, enjoying the outdoors with his wife, and reading books). We began discussing the books he had on his list, and he asked for suggestions (I offered Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, since he seemed interested in self-improvement and management-type books).

Russ had an openness to him, and he was also talkative like Chase was. But he and his wife were newlyweds, married in October 2015, so the beauty and glitter of marriage had not yet tarnished. Their marriage, though in its infancy, was the antithesis to the marriage I had glimpsed in my previous flight. It was still a refreshing contrast, even knowing that they haven’t been “roughed up” yet by life. Somehow I think they’ll be okay, that they will turn to each other and to their growing knowledge to make it through those trials.

As for me, I am not exactly sure why God wanted me to talk to these men. Perhaps He wanted me to have a glimpse into what others were experiencing. Sometimes we learn more from strangers than from our routine interactions. Perhaps later I will remember these two men when I forget (again) how fortunate I really am – I have my best friend along for the ride, and we’ve been on this ride long enough to weather the turbulence better than we did at the beginning.

*-not their actual names

Winter, the Death of Autumn

[I wrote this a few days after the death of Autumn Mehl, a young lady who taught Zumba classes at our local YMCA. I recently updated it and decided to share now that it’s been over six months since her death.]

I am still in shock. I suppose I will be for quite some time.

I did not know her at all, really, but she became an important role in my recent journey to fitness, and I was inspired by her enthusiasm and energy on the Zumba fitness floor.

My husband and I joined our local YMCA in October 2015, after several years of discussing and then ultimately rejecting because we thought the price was out of our budget. Through a few efforts, finally we were able to, and I noticed that an almost-two year old back injury began to feel the benefits of regular exercising (not only at our local YMCA, but at others that I can visit while traveling for my work).

I noticed on the local Y’s fitness schedule that Zumba was a daily offering, and I began attending the Sunday morning class.The instructor’s name was listed as “Autumn” on the schedule. Autumn quickly broke a sweat with her routine, and so did I. I watched in fascination as her trim body moved  like fluid and guided her students through an hour’s worth of high-energy Zumba moves. I began to think, “I wonder if she looks amazing from just doing  Zumba, and if I keep doing it, will I look the same?” I tried hard to mimic her moves, just in case the answer was “yes”.

I had no way of knowing that my last class with her would be Sunday, 2.7.16. She threw me off the first half-hour, doing songs that I did not know, so that I fumbled around a bit and had to work especially hard to watch her – I usually go to the front of the class so I can see better, but now I was potentially misleading the people behind me. The last half hour, she reverted back to songs that I knew which brought relief. I left there that day feeling my “Zumba High”, the rush of endorphins that I get from a good class.

On Saturday evening, 2.13.16, I was preparing to go to bed, eager as usual for the Sunday morning Zumba class. I took a final glance at Facebook, and I saw something that caught my attention – someone had changed their profile picture to a picture of Autumn, and around her face it said “Missing – Help Find Autumn”. After doing some checking, I found a Facebook page that was created earlier that evening. It appeared that Autumn and a male friend left a local bar at 2 a.m. on 2.13.16 and had not been seen since. I felt my stomach turn. I looked at her Facebook page – she had over 1,000 friends, and no one had heard from her all day. Both of their phones were shut off, an ominous sign. Search parties had formed and dozens of people were driving around the frozen, snowy Michigan night searching for her white Toyota. I stayed up until after 2 a.m. reading posts, and posting my own notices on local police Facebook pages. I prayed several prayers that night, knowing the outcome was not good, but hoping for the best anyway.

It was a bad night of sleeping – I had been fighting a constant cough anyway – but I awakened at 6:30 a.m. on 2.14.16 and kept reading the posts. Another search party was gathering at our local Y, and within an hour and a half, they found her car, upside down in a creek, both she and her friend dead inside the car.

It appeared that her car slid off a very narrow road (that had no guard rails) into the creek below. Even if alcohol was not a factor, the weather that night was not good; we had received more lake effect snow on top of snow that had fallen during the week. It was not a good night for driving for anyone. Later, toxicology results confirmed that her blood alcohol level was almost twice the legal limit. Howevever, I am of the persuasion that if there had been guard rails present, the outcome would have been very different. In fact, guard rails were finally erected soon after their deaths.

I think what bothers me more than anything is that she left behind three small children and two step-children, who will grow up not knowing their mother, not having her in their precious lives. Her life, which was energetic and enthusiastic from what I could tell, was now snuffed out, all because she made the choice to take a road that should not have been taken that night, figuratively and literally. I will miss her in Zumba, but more importantly, those who loved her will miss her for all the right reasons: they will miss her as a mother, a sister, daughter, and friend. All because the perils of winter claimed her life way too soon.

Postcards: Alabama

From my journal, dated Sunday, 12.6.15 ~2100 EST

Every morning I climbed north on AL-21 out of Atmore on my way to Monroeville, driving through harvested cotton fields, past a prison (where the speed limit dropped to 35 miles per hour), and a lumber yard that sat near a bumpy set of railroad tracks. I saw bits of cotton sticking to the nubby grass along the roadside, like dryer lint that refused to budge. I saw scrubby evergreen trees and a low sky, yet not as expansive as it is in Kansas or Colorado. The lumber yard had an intoxicating cut-wood smell that lingered for a few miles. Atmore did not offer much more than a casino and a few restaurants, but it did have a YMCA.

I visited restaurants with food that soaked lazily in butter baths, with fat oozing off of chicken, and mounds of cheesy macaroni sitting in large metal containers under heat lamps. I felt my cholesterol rise by 30 points as I ate food that shocked my normally-vegan system and caused me to feel more sluggish than usual.

I met with people who are extremely courteous, almost in an anachronistic way, where people are prefaced with a “Ms.” or “Mr.”, and the word “Ma’am?” comes in place of “Excuse me?” The homes I visited for my work … people were glad to see me, although I was a stranger to them. I represented a local business that they seemed to respect, and counted me as one of their own, even though my “northern” accent clearly indicated that I was not. Courtesy won, and I was treated with respect any way.

When I left there late Friday afternoon, the temperature had returned to the mid-60s (after having been in the 40s during my stay). I felt like I should be nostalgic somehow, but I wasn’t. I plopped into my seat on the Canadair Jet, fastened my seatbelt, and proceeded to read from my book “Writers on Writing” as we awaited our departure from the airport in Mobile. This literally will be my one and only time in Alabama for work.

And this was the only postcard I brought back with me.

New Year’s Eve: A Pseudo-Retrospective

Christmas arrived yesterday evening, 12.30.15. My husband had ordered some books for me from my Amazon wish list, and my Dad and his girlfriend’s package of gifts arrived as well. I am tired tonight, trying to believe it is truly New Year’s Eve. The two months that I loathe are about to begin. These cold, dark days make it feel like January and February will never end. (February, the shortest month of the year, feels interminable to me).

I’m thinking about a lot of things, nothing organized or interesting, but here are some New Year’s memories that come readily to mind:

New Year’s Eve, 1995. This was one of the last nights that I stayed at my maternal Grandma’s house, the first New Year’s after my Grandpa had died. I was a junior in high school. While growing up, she lived one street over from us, within easy walking distance. We found ourselves at her house a lot throughout the years, but New Year’s was a special treat. She made popcorn on the stove using a heavy metal saucepan. She would jostle the pan repeatedly over the hot electric burner as the kernels pinged against the metal pot. Afterward, she poured butter and salt over the freshly-popped kernels, and we ate it happily in front of the TV, watching the excitement in Times Square. We cut up old advertisements that came in the mail, a makeshift confetti, and tossed it upward as the clock struck midnight.

On this particular New Year’s, I was recovering from one of the worst asthma attacks that I’d ever had. Just a few days earlier, I had spent time in the emergency room, taking back-to-back breathing treatments. My lungs had felt like they were paralyzed, like filled balloons that could not receive any more air. I was exhausted from several days of struggling to breathe – there was no where for the air to go. Those breathing treatments brought instant relief to my breathing and my anxiety. For some reason, my Grandma’s house had fewer triggers, and my Mom wanted me to recover there for a day or two. It worked. New Year’s truly felt like a recovery. I wrote in my journal early the next morning, the curtains still drawn against the dim, gray outdoor light, everyone still asleep, but I could breathe, I no longer struggled. I munched on leftover popcorn as I wrote, and I was thankful.

New Year’s Eve, 1999I was working the night shift in a Dayton, Ohio area hospital, the leading trauma hospital in the area. Y2K was looming. We were prepared for a major malfunction of technology. As Respiratory Therapists, we were worried about our mechanical ventilators (i.e. “life support” machines) failing, so we had Ambu-bags on stand-by in all of the ICU rooms (these are basically big football-looking balloons that we used to manually pump oxygenated air into a patient until mechanical ventilation was available). I found an empty patient room, turned on the TV to see Times Square, all those happy people laughing and yelling, not a single person worrying about potential ventilator failures. Eleven fifty-five p.m., and I started pacing, mentally preparing my strategy. Eleven fifty-nine p.m., I started holding my breath. Suddenly, midnight. The lights never flickered, the ventilators kept humming right along. I don’t remember anything else about that overly-hyped night.

New Year’s Eve, 2001. There is a photograph from this particular evening, taken high up in a sky scraper in Chicago, looking at (what was then called) the Sears Tower. It was the day after our friend Robert’s 30th birthday. I remember two things: it was absolutely freezing cold, the wind whipping mercilessly between buildings, stinging my face so that my eyes watered constantly; my lips felt swollen and my teeth wouldn’t stop rattling. We walked around downtown, as this was part of Robert’s birthday wish – to enjoy the atmosphere of one of his favorite cities. I was miserable and couldn’t wait for the night to end. The second memory is of eating at Uno’s Pizzeria that night. It was a tiny place that seemed to be wedged thoughtlessly into the building, too small and crowded for my taste. We waited outside in the cold for a long time, but when we finally got inside, I didn’t mind the continued wait. Finally, finally, I was warm. There were pictures of celebrities on the walls, people who had been in there and had written glowing messages of appreciation for the place. In my journal, I wrote of these celebrities and wondered what greatness they saw in Uno’s that I couldn’t see. I still do not see the big deal about Chicago. And I don’t remember actually celebrating the new year that night.

New Year’s Eve, 2005I had just finished my evening shift at a small hospital in southern Indiana. Our friends Robert and Tricia were in town, on their way back to New Jersey. We were completely out of their way, but Robert’s love for adventure made provisions for side trips like visiting us. I arrived home near midnight, where I met them at my tiny apartment. We had a post-birthday celebration for Robert, starring a chocolate cake with pink lettering (thanks to his then-seven-year old daughter). We also met their newest daughter, born in August, a beautiful child who smiled and laughed at my acne-covered face. In my journal, I wrote about how their seven-year old daughter slept on the couch bed in the living room with me, and we told stories to each other until two or three in the morning, like best friends sharing secrets after a long separation. Those were the days when she still liked me, before adolescence took over, before I was no longer cool.

New Year’s Eve, 2015. I am sitting here in the old rocking chair, legs propped up on the purple swiss ball. My husband is off playing soccer. I am here, thinking about how much I hate January, how I refuse to make resolutions, but also thinking that this year is the year that I get serious about writing. For Christmas, my husband bought me three books (two have arrived, the other still a mystery that has yet to arrive). Last night, lying in bed, I read the first book to arrive, called True Stories, Well Told. “Well told” indeed, so well that I didn’t go to sleep until after midnight (on a work night), riveted by essays about cancer, abuse, hitchhiking around Europe and living with a traumatic brain injury. I have been in a writing funk for a few months, which was unexpected after almost an entire year of consistent journal writing. This book fanned the embers, brought life back to my writer’s soul.

And now I am here, writing garbage, but writing. Soon, we will pop the non-alcoholic bubbly, toast our good-byes to a difficult year, and I’ll scribble my pens to a new year full of real and imagined adventures.

A Respiratory Therapist’s Kaleidoscope: Reflections on Sixteen Years as an RT (Part 3)

Graduating from “respiratory school” brought a great sense of accomplishment along with the reality that I was now required to live like a responsible adult. I was happy to be finished, but also had a nagging sense of dread: was this it? Was this all there was to my life? I was 21 years old by this point. Was this the zenith of my adulthood? Would there be anything else, or would I just work as a Respiratory Therapist and lead a boring, predictable life with few spurts of excitement?

Around the time of my graduation, the college from which I graduated began baccalaureate programs, including one in Respiratory. I decided that I would continue my education and obtain a bachelor’s degree. I thought this would solve my problem: I could still be in school while I worked, and this would give me a few more years to decide what was next in my life.

I was still working part time in the area’s Level 1 Trauma Center, but my hours had picked up considerably after I graduated. I hadn’t accepted a true full-time position there, but was essentially working full-time hours. I started picking up night-shift schedules also, which started at 6:30 pm and ended at 7:00 am the following morning. I was now a full-time student, working full-time hours at the hospital, often at night. I felt tired all of the time. But I was gaining valuable experiences along the way. In addition to all of this, I continued working in the Nuclear Medicine department on occasion to supplement my income.

At the end of September 1999, the stress of working full-time and going to school full-time took its toll, and after talking to a mentor, I dropped out of the baccalaureate program. That evening, while at work, the night shift supervisor asked me how school was going.

“I quit,” I answered. He gave me a curious look.

“You quit?” His face quickly brightened. “That means you can take a full-time position. We have one available in ICU,” he said.

I interviewed for the ICU position, and after I accepted the offer, they started me in ICU right away. There were at least three of us RTs who were responsible for three “pods” of ICU beds. There were about five or six patients in each pod. Pod A was where burn patients were placed.

I will never forget the night that “Curtis” came in. He was an African American man that was burned so badly, his beautiful brown skin was a patchwork of bloody pink and white. I no longer remember the percentage of his body that was burned, but it was high enough that his chances of survival were very slim. We worked to stabilize him; he was intubated and placed on a ventilator right away. Later, when his drug test results came back, we understood why he was burned so badly. He had been high on cocaine, and was smoking in bed. The mattress caught fire, and rather than evacuate, he tried to extinguish the burning mattress by taking it into the nearby bathroom. The mattress overpowered him, knocking him to the ground, and he sustained third-degree burns over much of his body.

When people say that you never forget the smell of burnt human flesh, it is true. To this day, I can smell this man’s burnt flesh as we worked to stabilize him. He lost fingers and toes, and had skin grafts all over his body. He sustained heat inhalation to his airways and lungs, causing them to fill with fluid and nearly drowning him. We had to use special modes of ventilation to overcome the stiffness in his lungs that prevented him from getting adequate oxygen. Statistically, he was a dead man. But he survived.

Curtis slowly improved, after many weeks of skin grafts and close calls with death. As he improved, he was able to spend several hours during the day without being on the ventilator, but then he was placed on it at night so that he could sleep and not struggle to breathe. By this point he’d had a tracheostomy for quite some time, which made these trial periods on and off the ventilator easier to accomplish.

One night Curtis and his Pod were my assignment for the evening. He was now having test trials of going all night long without the ventilator. He had a “cap” on his trach so that he could speak (normally patients with an open trach cannot speak because the trach is placed lower in the neck so that the air goes in and out below the vocal cords). He was getting ready for bed, and I was giving him his last breathing treatment of the evening. He had his television on, but it was tuned to a local rap radio station. All of a sudden, this song came on, and it was one of those songs that was popular at the time, Juvenile’s “Back that A** Up”. Curtis, without missing one beat, began singing and dancing from the waist up in his hospital bed. In a raspy voice, he sang, “Girl, you lookin’ good, won’t you back that thing up; you’se a big fine woman, won’t you back that thing up…” I couldn’t help laughing. This man had been on life support for at least two or three months, having survived several tangos with death, and here he was, singing along with this rap song and grooving to it like nothing ever happened.

Eventually he was moved to one of the step-down floors and I suppose he was eventually discharged home. I’ll never know what life was like for him after he left ICU.

There were two other patients whose memories remain with me, all these years later.

One young lady, 17-years old, was the driver of a car that crashed into and became pinned under a semi-truck. She was my patient one night, and I was in her room checking her ventilator. Just then, several male friends of hers came into her room and began singing hymns to her, in that way that only African Americans, who have tasted centuries of suffering, can sing. The boys’ voices blended in a tight harmony so rich with sound and solace that my eyes immediately swelled with tears, and I had to leave the room. I went into the one of the supply rooms and cried silently, trying to compose myself. I wasn’t that much older than this precious soul. To this day, I do not know what happened to her, but her injuries were severe enough that I am pretty sure she did not survive them.

And then there was the other patient. I think he was in his 40s. He was a very tall, thickly built man, with close to 300 pounds on his 6’5″ frame. He had been T-boned by another driver and sustained abdominal injuries so severe that after surgery, they could not close up his abdominal incision because of all the swelling. They put a special film over his incision to keep infection from setting in. His lungs also sustained a lot of trauma, and over a few days, they stiffened and wouldn’t allow the proper exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. We had to use special modes of ventilation to try to overcome this problem. Eventually, he was placed on a Stryker bed, which turns so that the patient is face down. The theory is, when a person is lying on their back, the blood pools at the lowest points of the body thanks to gravity. If a person is turned over and made “prone”, then the blood will move more easily to other areas of the body, and this will increase circulation and oxygenation.

We had to “prone” this man every 4-8 hours per doctor’s orders, and because of his large size, it often took eight or ten nurses and RTs to turn him. Also, because of his open abdominal incision, one of the RT supervisors brought in a tire inner tube to place under his abdomen so that his inner parts were not squished when he was prone. We worked so hard to save this man’s life, and he survived his injuries. What I will never forget is how mean this man was once he was finally healthy enough to come off of the ventilator. He was demanding and critical of the nurses who cared for him. This man had no idea how close to death he had come, and how hard and creatively we worked to save his life. He had not one ounce of gratitude for the care he had received.

No one was sad to see him discharged from the ICU.

My time working in the ICU also included the scare of Y2K, when everyone thought that the computer world would come to a screeching halt on January 1, 2000. I had to work in the ICU that New Year’s Eve. I remember it being a quiet night. We had several empty rooms in the three Pods. The patients who were on ventilators had Ambu bags on standby, and we RTs were ready to manually “bag” those patients if the ventilators suddenly shut down at midnight. It never happened, and the ventilators continued humming along.

I continued humming along for another four or five months, but the stress and worry got to me. I constantly went home wondering if I did everything right on my shift, going through each patient and my time with them to ensure I didn’t make any mistakes. Eventually I left my ICU position and worked at my Nuclear Medicine job a lot more as I was getting paid the same amount of money, and it was less stressful. By this point, I was also thinking of going back to school to pursue something different, getting away from Respiratory after a few short years. However, leaving my ICU job would not be the last of my Respiratory journey.