Mary, Mary quite contrary

I am sitting at my desk in the gray light of early morning wondering how much longer I have to live. It is more curiosity than morbidity that fuels the question, based upon a pulmonologist's comment the day before that the survival rate among those with COPD is getting better. He didn't follow up with an estimate of longevity in terms of days or weeks: just that it is improving. Hooray for us.

Thumbnail image for al-martinez-photo.jpgI leave these kinds of mournful subjects to ponder just before dawn when the house is quiet and even the cat is asleep. I awake when there are still shadows of night over Topanga, take a breathing treatment with my bedside nebulizer and watch puffs of medicated steam emerge from my face mask to disappear in vaporous trails against the ceiling. Then, as the sky lightens, I settle down before my computer and begin to write.

This is no exercise in self-pity or a feeling that I might pop off before Christmas but an effort to inform you what you face if you're ever diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. It happened to me three years ago. I was told it was progressive and that in its worsening stages I would not be able to walk from room to room. I was told that in the end it would feel like I was breathing through a straw. I could see that the pulmonologist took no pleasure in telling me that. He said it and then quickly left the room. He didn't say how long I might live, and I didn't ask.

I'm skeptical regarding the claim of improved longevity. I say that as it becomes more difficult for me to breathe, and as I turn to using my nebulizer and small plastic inhaler more often than I should. Is there something new on the market? Then I want it. I take pills every day and a steroid helps me breathe, but doesn't cure and can do more harm than good. I have ended up in E.R. Hell half a dozen times when nothing seemed to help, and will no doubt visit there again.

On the other hand, I know of men and women who have had COPD a lot longer than I have and are older by far than I am (84) but who are still bouncing around town like gazelles on the Serengeti. My sister Mary, who is one of them, doesn't know at age 92 how long she's had it or how long she may live, but she doesn't care. She just recently gave up cigarettes but will be damned if she'll give up a screwdriver now and then. She feels great.

If you get the loathsome disease, you will either end up seeing it as I do with a skeptical view of any imminent cure, or bopping about like my sister Mary who still works taking care of children which, she points out, is a lot harder than writing a column. And she still does a lot of traveling with her daughter without even breathing hard. "I just don't pay attention to it," she said to me one day. Maybe that's what is helping victims of COPD live longer. They just ignore it.

I'm going to go along with Mary for now and shuck off the melancholia that has shadowed me. Now I say let's drink to tomorrow and maybe the day after tomorrow too for whatever time remains, dancing like gazelles to a tune that the devil plays. I'm not going to worry any more about how long I'm going to live. I'll recognize the Pearly Gates when I get there.

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