The first death sentence

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Does a button entitled “Death Sentences” seem a little dark and gloomy? Maybe a little ominous? Why should it? Death is part of our living. Some of us do not have to deal with this issue until our bodies begin to show signs of old age. But then some of us have it set squarely in front of us much sooner.

Sentence No. One.

Joan-late 30sThe first time I was handed a sentence of an early demise I went numb and speechless, not able to think about anything. Later, as I lay in bed, able to think again, I felt like my life was being aborted before I had a chance to live it.

Germersheim, Germany was my home at the time this first death sentence was handed to me. I was sitting in the office of a military Pulmonary Specialist in Longstuhl when I was told to plan my life. I was 36 years old.

“Everyone loses breathing function in their 40s,” explained the doctor, “and you have none to lose.”

I do not recall but I must have said the word “if” because the doctor jumped on it.

“There is no if,” he admonished, “it is when. You will die young. You need to plan your life.”


“If you live ten years,” he added, “you will be doing good.”

Some folks think that was an awful thing to say to me. But I appreciate that doctor for being honest. I am sure he was right about what he said in the natural order of things. But what he and I both didn’t know is that I just was not a normal person in the natural order of things. I just love that fact.

The next doctor I saw was in Arkansas. I told him my prognosis and he told me a story about a former patient of his who had brain cancer. With only five months or less to live this woman prepared her own funeral. She lined up everything, including her pallbearers. Five years later when she died, not one of her pallbearers was still alive.

“No one can tell you when you will die,” explained this doctor. “Often people who are sick will take better care of themselves and therefore live longer.”

My question.

My question is, why do people have to be told they are going to die before they try to take care of themselves? One of my missions is to try to get folks to change that tendency by sharing my stories. There are parts of our physical life we cannot change no matter how much we want to, but there are other parts of which we can take total control. I share in this website my path to take control of my health. Though my situation was not a result of sickness, it made me vulnerable to sickness.

The situation.

The military was not sending respiratory patients to Germany at the time I was there. But I slipped through the cracks. My husband, though in the Army, was giving support to the Navy in San Diego. Therefore, the Army did not have access to my medical records to assess whether or not I would be a candidate to accompany my husband to his new assignment in Germany. Unknown to me, when the Army asked if I had respiratory problems, he downplayed the facts lest it keep me from going with him.

Within days of arriving in Germany I had to take a bronchodilator with increasing frequency. As I always did after learning to “don’t wheeze”, upon arriving to the new assignment I tried to establish contact with a Pulmonary Specialist. That request was denied. Instead I saw a doctor who gave me theophylline (theo-dur). It did not work so he increased the dosage. Again and again.

Each time the dosage was increased I would lay in bed unable to function until my body adjusted to the increase. I could not sleep. I functioned like a robot as I could not think. I had a choice. Breathe or think.

I again requested to see a pulmonary specialist and was denied by the doctor. The doctor was rude and refused to listen. He sent me home with yet a higher dosage of theophylline.

Took matters into my own hands.

Finally I took matters into my own hands. When the theophylline began to wear off (between dosages) and I could think again, I wrote a letter to the doctor and copied to my husband’s commander. The commander called the doctor. I was finally given a Consult to Pulmonary in Longstuhl as well as another (sooner) visit to the rude doctor. This time the doctor was kind and solicited my trust concerning yet another increase in the drug. Bottom line is the man sweet talked me into allowing him to torture me yet again, with the promise my body would adjust. I began to breathe better, to my surprise, but along with it came even more side effects which the doctor insisted were not caused from the drug.

I wrote yet another letter, this time to the Pulmonary doctor I was scheduled to see in Longstuhl, hoping that by giving him the facts before my visit he would be better able to help me. I used the letter I wrote to the first doctor and added a bit more detail. The moment I walked into his office he opened a thick red book and let me read the side effects of the drug I was taking. Everything my body was going through was on the list in that book.

How did I get there in the first place?

The Pulmonary Specialist wanted to know how it was that I was in Germany in the first place because military dependents with respiratory problems were not being allowed to move to Germany. He took me off the theo-dur and put me on inhalers, and arranged for me to leave Germany and return to the United States. And, don’t forget, he handed me that death sentence to play with the rest of my life to boot.

It was nearly a week before I left Germany. By the time I left I was spitting up blood from using the inhalers too much in my quest to breathe. I was so weak from the ordeal in Germany, it took six months after returning to the United States before I could sit up straight at a table.

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