July 6, 2017
I’ve had “first days” with more than 50 nurses. But none was as memorable as my first day with Jean.
Most of my childhood was spent with one home care nurse after another, each of whom picked me up from school and took care of me at home until my parents returned from work. They took my vital signs, watched me do my homework, cleaned my tracheostomy tube and helped me take a bath.
They were essentially babysitters-slash-experts on “trach tube” kids like me. I was born with vocal cord paralysis, which doesn’t affect my voice or my ability to live and work, but does affect my breathing. I’ve worn a trach tube to help me breathe ever since I can remember.
Jean’s first day began like all the others: Her beat-up red Chevy Corsica rolled into my school’s driveway, and I quickly shuffled my way into her car before the other kids saw me. I was in fifth grade, and who picked you up after school was important.
My memories of that first afternoon with Jean are hazy, but as with all the previous nurses, I’m sure I sized her up quietly from the backseat, then again later from my kitchen table. She had a curly black pixie cut and cool hands. Her skin, the color of chocolate fondue, was dotted with freckles and moles.
This is what I learned in my first few hours with Jean: She was 55 and had diabetes. Her last name was Langley, and her middle name was spelled weird, Christeen, but pronounced “Christine.” She wasn’t married but lived with her sister Hattie. I wondered if she’d ever had a crush or if she ever felt lonely, though I didn’t dare ask.
The sun began to set not long after we got home. I had just finished eating a late afternoon snack, simultaneously wearing a small device called the Passy-Muir valve, which helped me practice breathing through my nose and mouth.
Jean stood up from the kitchen table to rummage through a supply cabinet. And that’s when it happened.
One moment, I was removing the Passy-Muir valve. The next, it felt as if someone had stuffed a large bead into my tracheostomy tube, leaving no gaps for air to flow through. Nothing like this had ever happened before.
My trach tube, which normally allows me to breathe properly, had become completely blocked with mucus. The physiological reaction was immediate: my chest tightened and my heart pounded, as if the air had been sucked out of my lungs. I fell to the kitchen floor, gasping for breath.
Jean wheeled around to find me wheezing and pointing desperately at my trach tube. Horrified, she kept shouting, “What’s the matter?”
I yelled frantically, “Get it off! Get it off!” but no sound came out. There was no air in my lungs. My mouth just moved up and down, as if I were a ventriloquist’s doll. Everything started to blur.
If this is going to be my last night alive, I decided right then, I don’t want to waste these last few seconds. I conjured up what I believed would be my final thought: a wordless image of Dad, Mom, my 15-year-old sister Hope, and a brown-haired soccer player from school named Warren.
My sister, who had been taking a nap upstairs, woke to the sound of Jean pounding on the wall downstairs, crying “Help!”
Hope stumbled down the stairs to find me lying on the floor, my face colorless. She screamed at Jean, over and over: “What did you do? What did you do?”
Jean ordered my sister to call 9-1-1, then grabbed a spare trach tube from the supply cabinet. “We have to take the trach out and put in a new one,” she said, positioning herself over my body. She pulled out the trach that had been inside of me, then tried to insert the new one.
But the hole in my neck where my trach should’ve been started constricting, even as Jean tried to stab the new device in. My sister later told me that at some point, as I was fading in and out, I turned my head toward her and asked if I was going to die. She promised me I was going to be fine.
Jean scrambled to find another, smaller-sized trach tube. She tried to jam it into the trach hole, which by then had practically closed off.
That’s when, with the sheer force of her hands, Jean got the new trach in.
It felt like forever before the ambulance arrived. Two paramedics walked in with a stretcher, as Jean filled them in on what had happened. One of them helped her tie the new trach in place with a white string.
As they rolled me out the front door on the stretcher, I felt the winter chill. It was a tranquil December night, and all the nearby houses seemed so peaceful, the neighbors unaware that anything unusual had happened.
Jean sat with me in the back of the ambulance as we drove off to the hospital. A paramedic monitored my oxygen levels. As the emergency sirens of the ambulance screeched above me, I wondered what people on the street were thinking.
That’s the last of what I remember about my first day with Jean.
Even now, 15 years later, that night still lingers in my mind. The doctors later concluded that using the Passy-Muir valve had dried out my trach tube and hard mucus had built up over time. My trach tube has never been blocked since then. Still, whenever I hear an ambulance pass by, my heart starts to pound.
On Jean’s first day, she saved my life. Once I’d recovered and returned to school, Jean’s beat-up red Corsica would roll into the school driveway every afternoon. She was my home care nurse for seven more years, until I graduated from high school. By then, I’d learned to take care of myself and no longer needed a full-time nurse.
Jean and I still talk to each other on the phone on birthdays and at Christmas. Between the brief silences, I know she can hear my breathing through the trach tube on the other line. I can sense her smiling through the phone. It’s a comforting sound for both of us.