Thursday, December 17, 2009

Breathing Underwater

Anyone who knows me knows that I have a couple of weaknesses. (Well, okay, so maybe more than a "couple," but really, who's counting?) The first, if I'm being completely honest, is probably candy, but the second, and far more important one for the purposes of this post, is most definitely anything bright, shiny, and colorful. In college I had a friend who used to joke about my "inner raccoon" because of my tendency to be mesmerized by things that glitter, sparkle, or glow in any way. More than one trip to Vegas has included a story about me wandering off from my friends, only to be found staring at the slot machines (not playing, mind you -- staring). I sometimes think I chose to move to New York City not so much because I wanted to go to law school here, but because it has some absolutely amazing views of lights at night. And, of course, more recently I flat-out insisted that the Christmas tree in my apartment (where my whole fabulous family is gathering for the holiday, because they love me that much!) have multi-colored lights instead of plain white. It's not that I don't love elegant -- it's just that I prefer my tree to look like a rainbow that just happened to land in my corner, if possible.

My third weakness, believe it or not, is fish.

Yes, I have a thing about fish. I have no idea when it started, or how I got so hooked on those little swimmy creatures, but I have to admit that I am, in fact, an addict. I love watching them, love going to aquariums, and tend to get super over-excited whenever I spot them out in open water. And yes, I am completely aware that this is an odd little quirk of mine (particularly given the fact that I a) have been bit by a dolphin, and b) once had a seagull poop in my hair while visiting SeaWorld, either one of which you'd think would have turned me off to aquatic animals altogether), but frankly I just can't help myself. I mean sure, they're slimy and they smell bad, but they're also graceful and beautiful and, well, colorful.

So I guess given these combined obsessions, it's no wonder why I pushed so hard for my family to spend New Year's 2007 at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. It's still a bit of a mystery to me where I picked up the original idea, but I do know for certain that my main plan for the trip involved me, a snorkel, warm summer waters (Southern Hemisphere), and a whole lot of gorgeous, wildly colorful sea life. Think all the spectacle and glitz of Vegas lights multiplied by 100, but without the cheesyness and theme-based restaurants, and you'll probably have a pretty good idea of what I had in mind.

What I did not have in mind, however, was CF.

I'm not going to go into the events that led me to get as sick as I did before that trip, but suffice it to say that I should never have gone. I was flailing, literally, and everyone around me could see it a whole lot better than I could at the time. All I knew was that this was my trip, my idea, my family vacation, and I was not going to miss out on it for any reason -- even a really, really good one. So I went, despite everyone's pleas and warnings and despite my own best interest, and trekked around Sydney despite mind-blowing pain, and I ate kangaroo despite having no appetite whatsoever, and I snorkeled, of course, despite not being able to breathe.

Well, sort of.

It would be more accurate to say that I floated, supported by multiple "noodles" because I was too tired to really swim and because I knew that at any moment I might have to yank my head out of the water and take out my mouthpiece to get a good breath. And in between these panicked gulps for air, I peered down at the magical world floating just below me and tried to make out the colors through the tears accumulating in my facemask. I made my sister stay right next to me the entire time, smart enough at least to know that if you're going to snorkel in the ocean while sick, it's best to use the buddy system. And I tried as best I could to recapture some of the excitement and wonder of previous snorkeling expeditions, knowing that I had risked too much not to at least savor the moment. Unfortunately, I guess I had to learn the hard way that it's hard to savor anything when you're feeling strangled.

Trust me when I say it's not a coincidence that no pictures from that family vacation grace the walls or bookshelves or nightstands of any of my family's homes. Honestly, it's painful even to write about, because it makes me feel silly and selfish and ashamed all over again. And yet, at the same time, I'm actually thankful in a weird way for the whole experience. I had definitely pushed myself too hard, let illness go too long, not been in proper control of my CF to the best of my ability, before "Australia-Gate 2007," but never before had I been so forced to face the consequences. For better or for worse, I can honestly say that I have never since put off contacting my doctor or those dreaded IVs, and remarkably I've found that most of the time this works to my advantage. True, I have to face the fact that something planned long in advance might have to be canceled last minute due to CF -- and that royally sucks sometimes, no doubt about it -- but at least I'm not likely to find myself half a world away from my doctor and drowning. It's an experience I'd prefer not to relive, I guess.

Or at least not relive entirely, because there are definitely aspects of that trip that still make me swoon. Namely, my family, the color, the beauty, and, yes, the fish. So the other day when I sat down to make a list of the many things I plan to do with my new lungs, is it any wonder that "snorkel somewhere beautiful" came in pretty close to the top of the list? And as I sat there writing that goal out on paper for the very first time since January of 2007, I was struck by one simple, yet amazing, fact: achieving it is entirely possible for me. Even likely. And this time I promise you that I will savor every second.

Because breathing is a miracle. Especially underwater.


  1. I am a self-proclaimed magpie who only allows colored light trees (in fact I FB posted about this tonight!)... and I too have floated on noodles while watching fish and hoping I wouldn't hork in a snorkel mask...

    Though I haven't been to Australia. I'm fairly sure that discounts the creepy feeling that I wrote this!

  2. Ok, I know what we have to do! Let's find you a glittery and shiny fish that tastes like candy!!!! I just KNOW there's something like that out there somewhere :)


  3. I loved this post for so many reasons. However my FAVORITE is that I have the same love for lights at night! In Vegas I was in awe of them! Nothing like how they glitter in the night sky. Cool that someone else has the same love of this :) And YES COLORED lights are a MUST in our house too!

  4. You will be swimming CIRCLES around those fish while you snorkel!!!

    Mike and I went snorkeling in Mexico for his brother's wedding.. pre-tx.. Mike had to literally drag me around the ocean b/c I just didn't have the breath or strength to do it myself.

    New lungs change EVERYTHING!

    So excited for you, Cyster!!!!

  5. I love lights too! There is just something about all that LIFE that makes you feel awesome!

    Can't wait till you get new lungs! I want to see pictures of these fabulously bright fish :)

  6. Awesome Piper! Some of my favorite memories of summer vacation were down in the Florida Keys back in the 1970s as a kid... sailing on my Aunt's yacht between Islands with my family and my cousins family.

    Hey, have you thought about getting a fish tank!?!? :)

  7. Oh, forgot to mention the Barracuda's - GIANT HUGE ONES - in some of the underwater canyons. You never saw a bunch of kids swim so fast to the boat! LOL. The snorkeling was fabulous. I remember swimming along with the rays.

  8. Hi there. I'm a fellow CF-er who is now 8 weeks (today!) post transplant. My blog is Before my transplant I got ill fairly quickly over about a year and a half, which put me on oxygen when walking around and a NIPPV ventilator overnight, but before that I was pretty fit and had always been very active and 'normal'. I also did some ill-advised trips abroad including one where I had to buy myself a flight home from Zanzibar in Africa as I had such a bad infection - don't know how I made it through that flight back...
    So what's the transplant like for someone used to being kind of ok, pretty active? Well it is very hard at first and you swap a life where you're in control, understand your lungs, feel well most of the time, for one where it is all new - the ribcage creaks and groans, there is a lot of pain, you feel sick, incredibly tired but too uncomfortable to sleep...BUT you can breathe like nothing you've ever known - there are moments of clarity where the pain is under control and you just lie there and BREATHE and it is an intense pleasure. Then you get on an exercise bike and laugh at the fact your legs hurt and you aren't even slightly out of breath. So the start is really hard, but 8 weeks in, I feel pretty much completely human and my life is already much better. There is no cough, no physio, no sputum. I can walk as far as I like, I'm about to start riding a bike. The pills are many and varied and a bit grim, but really it is great. So have courage and good luck!

  9. Hey Piper!

    I love you post! I have been to Australia and been snorkeling... but never snorkeling in Australia ;)

    However, I think you should be proud of your valiant effort to snorkel! I generally try to avoid it now b/c it is just such a struggle to breathe. But, funny story:

    While on my honeymoon just this past July, my new husband was so excited to snorkel, I went along with it. After a false 1st start (I was panicking and went back to the beach to rest), I got really far out from the beach and was proud of myself (ok, still struggling, but made it and found rocks to stand on so i could catch my breath...)

    So, we're out there... and my husband gets stung by a sea urchin in the leg. We knew they were bad and you shouldn't get stung by them, but we didn't know what would actually HAPPEN if you got stung. So, we both decide to swim to shore as quickly as possible to get help. For all we knew, he was going to die in a few minutes! lol. Yea... a few minutes later, he was just about at the shore, and I was only a few feet from where we started... completely out of breath and sure I was going to drown. (What was I thinking trying to swim as fast as I could back to shore when I couldn't breathe in the first place???) The poor guy and his stung leg, had to swim back, drag me to shore, and THEN figure out if his leg was going to fall off. lol.

    Luckily, he was fine. He had some ink in his calf and a little pain - but it all went away in a few days. And, I gotta admit, I was a little relieved our snorkeling got cut short, and he DID NOT want to snorkel for the rest of the trip :)

  10. Great post Piper. I'm an avid snorkeler too and hope to pull off a snorkel in 2 weeks but am in the hospital right now. Hopefully it won't be Jamcruise-snorkelgate for me.

    Keep up there with the posts. They are a joy to read and give me a good laugh as I deal with my progression down a similar path. I'm sending you lots of postive energy for happiness and peace until the new lungs arrive.

    Breathe well,