Spontaneous pneumothorax? What the heck is that?

In 1998, three months before my 21st birthday, I was driving home from work and felt a sharp pain in my back. Because I figured it was a pulled muscle, I popped a bunch of Advil, had a neighbor try to beat my back to loosen the muscle and continued on my way to a couple of parties (It was Christmastime after all!). All night, the pain remained but being young and stupid, I tried to drink it away. Only after arriving home and laying down in bed did I realize there may be an actual problem…..I couldn’t breathe. Off to the hospital I went!

Turns out when you go to the emergency room and are having trouble breathing, they rush you into triage. I didn’t even have to fill out my paperwork! After a quick check of my vitals, I got moved into the main ER where they took x-rays and only then did they tell me that I had a collapsed lung. Well, that sure was a surprise! There was a ton of fluid sitting in the outside cavity of my lung. Turns out when I laid down, the shift of my body caused the fluid that was sitting outside of my lung to move in a way that no longer allowed air to enter. Who knew!

Because I was under 21 and the hospital was overrun with cases of the flu, I was admitted to the pediatric unit which was a huge blessing. I got very personalized care with great nurses. I even got to make Christmas decorations for the hospital!

So long story short, that was the beginning of many years of dealing with a bum lung. My first surgery was a chest tube right there in the emergency room. I wasn’t at a teaching hospital, yet I had a bunch of people in the room, just to watch – even my dad watched by peeking around the curtain. I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks but the lung wasn’t properly reinflating. The doctor removed the tube so that I could go home for Christmas, but in the process, air got into the hole in my chest and made the situation worse. (I actually heard and felt the air enter my body.) They had me come in once a week to see if it would resolve itself, but it didn’t. Back to the hospital I went! My second stay involved another chest tube and then thoracoscopy, bleb resection, and talc pleurodesis.

During this three week stint in the hospital, I also developed three blot clots in my leg (due to being on the Depo Provera birth control shot and constant bed rest) which led to lots of doses of heparin and blood being drawn several times a day. This caused my veins to explode and once the tube full of blood even exploded. (Was quite a site – nurse, me, wall, floor all covered in blood. Too bad I didn’t get pics!)

Finally, all my issues were resolved, and I was sent home on a coumadin regimen for the next six months.

I wish that was where my story ended. Unfortunately, a few years later (2002) while at work, I felt that now familiar pain in my back again. A co-worker drove me to the hospital emergency room where they took an x-ray of my chest and sent me home because the lung was only 10% deflated. My previous pulmonologist and cardio thoracic surgeon had stopped practising, so I had begun seeing a new pulmonologist near my job after that. A few months later, I felt the pain again while at work, so I went to see him and sure enough my lung had collapsed – significantly this time. He made arrangements for me to meet a surgeon at a hospital closer to my house. This time I felt like a pro so I drove all the way home, took a shower and packed a bag, grabbed my mom and off to the emergency room we went! (Going to the hospital via the ER is a way around having to schedule surgery, so even though my new surgeon was now waiting for me at the hospital, I still had to be admitted via the ER.)

This time I also had my chest tube inserted in the ER but while my mother was allowed to stay in for the procedure, she chose to leave the room anyway (big baby!).  After several days, the doctor decided that it would be a good idea to do more surgery to fix what he thought was a botched job the first time around (lots of staples and old school techniques, which left a lot of scarring). He removed the staples and performed a segmentectomy (part of the top lobe of my right lung was removed).  He swore that lung would never collapse again. Well, he was wrong!

I think I’ve had at least two collapses since that last surgery. A year or so later (2003-ish) my lung collapsed while I was at work at lunch with some friends. I just said “Ouch, my lung just collapsed.” and went back to eating. Took a couple of days off, then went back to work.

After that last surgery, I decided to not go to the hospital any more for my collapses. They seem to resolve themselves within 10 days, and then I can move on with my life.

Over the years, treatment for spontaneous pneumothorax has improved. Many years ago, I met someone who had the same condition but had to have his entire chest sliced open and was left with a huge scar that looked like a magician had tried to saw him in half (I Googled to share this, but the images were too gross to include here. Feel free to Google and see for yourself!) I am fortunate to only have these tiny scars.

View of the right side of my back / slight side angle

View of the right side of my back / slight side angle

Even though it has been several years since my last collapse, every time I feel a twinge in that area, I pause to decipher what it going on. Because it has been so long, if I ever do feel that all familiar pain, I may have to give in and head back to the ER. Hope I never see you there!



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