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My Collapsed Lung

A change from the usual gambling content today, instead I’ll share my story of the last 11 days. This tale involves a collapsed lung, intensive care, ham rolls, being attached to hospital beds by various machines and ultimately surgery. I am writing it partly for self-therapy, partly as somewhere to point people with too many pesky questions and partly just for the sake of the story itself. If you are here for the poker then hold steady, I’m back in action and will have some fresh content for you very soon.

This tale actually goes back 2 months, to when I first noted being strangely short of breath. I’ll start from where things got interesting, the last Wednesday in June, then go back to the start to fill in the gaps.

Wednesday June 26th – An Average Day With A Twist At The End

Not mine, but the same idea!After a pleasant if uneventful day in the office I popped into the excellent FirstMed here in Budapest, on my way home, to see a GP. My plan was get a nagging problem with breathlessness fixed, and I was fully expecting to come away clutching a prescription for some pills which would  quickly clear things up.

Instead, after a thorough examination, I was informed that my left lung had collapsed, the gap between lung and chest-wall had  filled with fluid and air – and that I needed to go to hospital immediately. I had a ‘primary pneumothorax’ (PTX), a textbook example of one in fact.

Referral papers and CD of my x-rays in hand I called Erika who took me to the local Pulmonary specialist hospital. The evening duty doctor seemed a little skeptical at first, I was cheerful (if confused), had no particular chest pain that night, and was looking perfectly healthy.

After some more chest x-rays and tapping / listening the mood visibly changed. I was admitted to the hospital, given oxygen, sat in a wheelchair and taken to an intensive care bed which would be my home for the next 6 days.

Reflation – The First Hole In My Chest

Now, I have a theory about how to interpret the ways in which medical professionals describe pain, including dentists here. When they say something will be ‘uncomfortable’ it will hurt. When they say ‘Might feel some pain’ you can be damn sure it will hurt… basically you need to add 3 levels of agony to whatever they say to get to the true pain level.

A young doctor, who turned out to be a genuinely nice guy, told me that reflating my lung (which was an urgent requirement) would involve puncturing a hole in my side then adding a vacuum pump. He also said that it would be ‘very painful’.

Very painful + 3? Oh my…

You can get close to how this felt by imagining a particularly heavy friend kneeling on your throat, pounding your chest with a couple of lump hammers, while firing a high-powered soda-siphon up each nostril. At least it only lasted a couple of minutes.

I was sedated, put on an EEG, oxygen mask and saturation monitor, given a drip and self-inflating blood pressure monitor device, and – with chest suction tube pumping away - was left with a 24 hour nurse supervision to recover. I was in some form of shock, the situation had come from nowhere.

Back In Time – 6 Weeks Earlier

Around 2 months ago now I had started to get breathless. My first clear memory of this is being out of puff on the short walk home from my local bakery. I am a regular runner, do not smoke, and keep myself generally healthy – there was simply no good reason to be out of breath.

With the benefit of hindsight, there was a big difference between what should have happened, and what actually happened. Here it is:

What Should Have Happened: When my lung collapsed I should have immediately felt considerable chest pains and called for a doctor, possibly with a dramatic collapse to the floor or sofa in between.

What Actually Happened: I really do not recall a significant chest pain, just being out of breath one day. Anyway, I was far too busy to see a doctor, so just grumbled about it a little. I also moved apartment (oh yes, your one-lunged hero carried a ton of furniture and boxes!). I went running, managing just 1 kilometer before being forced to give up and walk home. I flew to Amsterdam (let me tell you, pressurized airplane cabins are no fun at all with one lung), carried luggage around, climbed a lot of stairs (top of the Rijksmuseum, not a problem!). I then flew to the UK for a wedding, the flight back in particular was very uncomfortable, 30,000 feet and feeling like I just could not breathe… I had been caught wheezing by my sister Chloe while in England, and she was not going to let me get away with avoiding the doctor for one second longer!

Walking around for 6 weeks with a collapsed lung is just not a smart move. To say it complicated my treatment would be an understatement. In my defense I really did assume it was an infection or allergy – a lesson learned there then.

Back To The Treatment Program

Erika was my savior throughout the long ordeal, translating (Doctors spoke some English, Nurses generally did not, and I do not speak Hungarian (though have now promised to restart lessons)), finding information and helping me out with the daily routine. I was stuck on my bed by the machines, in considerable discomfort and coughing up pink liquid. The x-rays (a machine now came to me!) showed my lung was mostly back up. Unfortunately the bubbles in the suction pump indicated that there was still a hole in the lung wall somewhere.

To add to my discomfort a special oxygen mask which pumps extra air into you when you inhale was fitted. Nasty enough on its own, it rubbed the bridge of my nose so much in the night that I woke up with my nose covered in blood, bah.

The top docs met on the following Tuesday, where my case was one of those reviewed. They decided my hole was not going to fix itself, and I was transferred via ambulance to another hospital which specialized in surgery for this kind of problem (no sirens for me, oh well!).

I had decided not to worry my family with the suction device story, and to alert them only if surgery was needed. This had the unintended consequence of worrying other people just as my own fears were peaking… hmmm, another lesson learned.

Interlude – Mark’s Top Tips For Surviving Hungarian Hospitals

1 – Learn to love Ham rolls, you'll be eating them a lot, I recommend you start appreciating them right now – you just never know. If you are a vegetarian then don’t worry… focus only on the rolls.

2 – You need to take your own comforts, all of them. Cutlery, cup, toilet roll (don’t lose it, a soft roll is at a premium inside and needs to be closely guarded), drinks and so on.

3 – When a doctor approaches your bed and says ‘how are you?’ do not do that British thing and immediately reply with ‘fine thanks, and you?’… the request is factual.

4 – Things happen early, 6am chest x-rays, 6:30 blood tests… You need to switch up your body clock, since the schedule sure is not changing for you.

5 – If you are and expat in Hungary and do not have insurance then, please, get your damn act together. The basic state coverage is very cheap (though you will have to back-pay from arrival date) and gives you access to excellent facilities and doctors educated at one of Europe’s top medical schools (Semmelweiss) … it’s a ‘no brainer’.

Hospital 2 – Where Things Got Going

I’ll fast forward here, this tale is getting long.

Things were far busier in the next place, and I was also in shared rooms instead of my solo intensive care spot. After various tests, more damn x-rays and a visit from a rather cute anesthetist - I was given a disclaimer to sign, had half of my chest and one armpit shaved by a guy with the world’s bushiest moustache and found myself under the surgeon’s knife for the first time. Their objective was to locate and seal the hole in my lung, and the procedure was a success.

I remember the initial coming around as a strangely pleasant experience, my pain was dulled with a sedating drip and there were lots of kisses from Erika… After that just a mix of pain and sleep for the next 18 hours, oh and a super-sore throat where they had put in some tubes during the op. The holes in the side of my chest now numbered 3. 2 of them had suction tubes in them.

My suction device was now mobile. It was around the size of a small car battery. Suddenly the quality of my life dramatically improved - thanks to my ability to do amazing things like going to the bathroom all by myself.

There were some interesting characters around, some fantastic nurses and a selection of the best doctors / specialists in the country. There were plenty of ham rolls too. In my ward of 4 we all had latex gloves to inflate 10 times a day as part of our post-op ‘physical therapy’. There was something darkly funny about the sporadic blowing up of these gloves, mixed with the groans of pain, snores and beeps from various machines…

It only took a few days to recover from the surgery. My routine involved pills, injections, blood tests, x-rays, ham and quite a bit of ongoing pain. This was capped by some (thankfully short-lived) agony when they finally removed the suction tubes and stitched me back up. Being tubeless was a great feeling though, a genuine breakthrough moment when going home started to feel real and not just some abstract concept.

Home Again – Injections, Thanks And Goodbye Nipple-Ring

So, I am now at home, I got to sleep on my preferred front for the first time last night and am taking a couple more days off to recover my strength. I have lots of medication, including 30 days of injections which I have to self-administer to my stomach, ugh. I can’t fly for a while and will not be back running again before September. Other than that I’m feeling pretty good, and really looking forward to getting back to work.

I had to remove my nipple-ring, as it was in the way of the x-rays, which had graced my left side for approximately 20 years. The hole has already started to close, and with more x-rays coming in my follow up examinations it is too soon to put it back. A shame in one way, though in another way it feels like a symbol of moving on. Like many guys I always thought that 'health issues' were something which happened to other people. Losing that particular arrogance can only be a good thing. If I get any requests I might yet have a new ring put in later down the line ;)

Other than that my feeling is of relief, and deep gratitude to the Hungarian health service for fixing me up so effectively.  I will add my thanks to my hero Erika for stepping up when it really counted, and to my families both English and Hungarian for their support.

Thanks for reading my story. This was a painful and frightening experience, and I feel better for writing it all down.


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