The problem with staples in your lung in that sometimes you can feel them. There they are, two days before a snowstorm. If you accidentally breath in too deeply, or if you swallow your morning tea the wrong way and have to cough, you feel them. You feel them in your back, at the upper right corner of your right shoulder bone. There’s a sharp pain there, and it’s sudden and deep and even after you’ve exhaled and the pain ought to be gone, it’s not quite. You try not to breathe too deeply, so you don’t get as much air as you’re used to, and you spend the day feeling dizzy and breathless and tired. It feels a lot like being in love, except for you’re exhausted instead of full up with energy.
It’s also terrifying. It’s the same as the pain you felt when the lung first collapsed. Back then, you felt it less acutely. You thought it was muscle strain. For the most part, it only hurt after ballet class, and even then only after the petit allegro, and only if Miss Kelly had made you do something particularly exhausting, like 64 changements with quarter turns every 8 counts. Then one day you laid down on the couch in the learning center at school, joking with your friends about wanting a nap, maybe, or maybe you were genuinely worn out from college applications and the American character essay and AP calculus. You laid down, and there was a shift. You didn’t know it was your lung, already partially collapsed, collapsing a little further. But once you knew, that became the only way to describe the sliding sensation. It was the feeling of your lung suddenly taking up a little less space in your chest than it had taken up the moment before. Of course.
After that the acute pain that came with deep inhalations, the pain you feel now, two days before the snowstorm, is constant but ancillary. The real issue, after you laid down and felt your lung slide, is your shoulder. From the spot near your shoulder bone, up your shoulder, and down the front of your chest nearly into your armpit, there is a dull, persistent pain. You think you’ve pulled a muscle, probably in the lyrical class you took to make up for having missed Saturday’s advanced tap last week. You stretch and take Advil, put heat on it and whine a little to your parents. “Maybe your lung collapsed,” your dad suggests, “like mine did when I was in college. “ You laugh it off because you’ve heard your dad’s stories. Your mom had to carry him to the ER because he was in too much pain to walk. Your lung isn’t collapsing. You can still dance.
Until the day you can’t. The Saturday after school gets out for winter break you wake up early, and excited. Miss Jessie, the tap teacher, who is really a ballet student at Northern Illinois University, has already gone home for the winter holidays, and she’s asked you to take over her classes for the day. It’s your very first teaching gig. You are the substitute: you get to re-teach the 5 year olds to do shuffles, the same step they learn every week. You have to work with 8 year olds on their recital dance, which will require you to listen to “I’m Bad” at least 6 times between 11 am and noon. Noon will be a break, because it’s your own class and there’s only one person in it besides you, so the two of you will turn on the Center Stage soundtrack and improv for an hour. After that, the adult class, and a top hat and cane routine to an old-time Broadway classic. You can’t wait.
You sit up in bed and start coughing. You walk to the bathroom and keep coughing. You put on your tights, then your leotard, then your knit pants, then a white tee shirt, and you’re still coughing. Every time you breathe in, there’s a tickle, like when you’re recovering from a cold and the cough sticks around longer than the snot and the sneezing and the aches. You’re coughing, and there’s a pain by your right shoulderbone every time you breathe in, as though something were sticking you with a box cutter from inside your ribcage. Your right shoulder is sore. As a too-uppity know-it-all high schooler, you’re still adamantly opposed to swearing, on the grounds that there’s always some better word out there to get your point across. In this case, you’re wrong. You feel like shit.
It’s probably just a cold. You eat some oatmeal, grab your keys, bundle up because it’s snowing, and exchange your usual parting words with your mother (“Bye mom, love you!” “Bye sweetie, dance like an angel!”) Your car doesn’t look fancy, because it’s old, but it’s a ’91 stick shift Audi Quattro with leather seats, and even though it’s dented and boxy, the seat heaters work great. You dial the warmth on the driver’s seat up to six, turn up whatever CD is up in the eight-disc changer (probably something by Blur), reverse out of your twisted driveway, steer through your twisted McMansion neighborhood, and turn onto Route 64. You pass megachurches and strip malls that used to be soy bean fields, and you’re still coughing. You turn onto St. Charles road, past the McDonalds and the hair salon where you’ll answer phones next summer, park the car, turn off the radio, take the keys out of the ignition, pull your too-large dance bag from the back seat, lock the doors (manually), and still, you’re coughing. You usually carry everything on your right shoulder, but it’s so sore that you sling your bag over your left shoulder instead and, feeling like you’ve put your shoes on the wrong feet, you walk into the dance studio.
Mrs. Hughes, the owner, says you look pale and asks if you’re sick. “Coming down with a cold, plus I’ve got a killer muscle pull in my shoulder, I think.” You’re shrugging her off, trying not to cough, ambling past studio 1 (pink) and studio 2 (lavender) to get to the small studio 3, the tap studio, which has yellow paint, where you cough some more, put on your tap shoes, and wait for the first class to arrive. You flip through a binder of CDs, put something on, and try to get the 5 year olds excited about toe taps and heel drops. You don’t move much. You couldn’t jump if you tried. The sharp pain mostly goes away if you’re standing or sitting on the very edge of the folding metal chair, although you’re still coughing and your shoulder is still sore. Walking is all right, as long as you don’t bounce too much. Actually tap dancing is out of the question. After you wish the adult dancers a Merry Christmas (no secular Happy Holidays here in St. Charles) you pull out your candy-red Nokia cell phone and call home. “Dad,” you say, trying not to cry, “I think when I get home I need you to take me to the hospital.”
You probably don’t remember the drive home from the dance school, but you’ve done it every day for years so why would you? You change into sweats and get into your dad’s nicer, newer Audi. The cushy, leaned-back seats are not good for the lung you don’t yet know has almost completely collapsed. You long for the hospital waiting room, where you can stand or sit forward on a hard chair.
The triage nurse is a kind, fat lady. She puts a plastic clip over your forefinger, and starts a little when she reads whatever the instrument is telling her. “You’re just a little thing but you’re sure not getting much air right now, are you?” They send you over to X-ray, and then you sit with your dad on the little waiting room bed, keeping the curtains open, half hoping to see a major trauma like on ER, which you watch every Thursday after Whose Line Is It Anyway. “It’s probably pneumonia,” you say. “I just hope your lung hasn’t collapsed like mine did,” your dad responds.
The ER doctor comes to the side of your bed, and slaps the x-rays on the light board. “As you can see…” he begins, but you’re already laughing, painfully, uncontrollably. The picture shows, in black and white and grey, one fully inflated lung, and another comically shriveled raisin-sized sac surrounded by air. Your dad is laughing too. The doctor is saying “spontaneous pneumothorax,” and “collapsed lung,” and it just seems so funny, and so obvious. There’s already a nurse sticking you with an IV—she plunges something into you that washes over your whole body, painfully, as though every blood vessel and muscle is tightening and growing warm. “Deladin,” she says, “for pain.” You’re hurting too much to find her explanation ironic. Someone else tells you to count backwards from 10, and you wake up in an ICU bed with a tube in your side and Turner Classic Movies on the TV and your mom in a chair, and that familiar stabbing sensation in your shoulder, which has yet to go away. They’ll leave the chest tube in for a few more days, and then recommend surgery. You don’t want any more Deladin, so you forego intravenous painkillers and live with the stabbing feeling that you’ve already gotten used to.
That stabbing is what you’re feeling now, looking at the weather report and buying groceries in preparation for the blizzard. You don’t feel the staples before every storm, but you only ever feel them in the days before a serious weather change. Maybe it’s because the weather’s always changing that this happens, since you’re not sure there’s really a physiological correlation between the weather and your lung.
It’s not actually the staples you’re feeling. For the first few years, you thought that’s what it was, and so that’s what’s stuck. What you’re actually feeling is your lung trying to collapse again. Collapsed lungs have the biological equivalent of really high recidivism rates. Once they’ve collapsed, they like to collapse again. The staples prevent the problem that caused the pneumothorax in the first place—little lung blisters that pop and let air from the lung into the vacuum of the chest cavity. When the surgeon stapled, he also glued. He scored the lung and the top of the chest cavity, so that those elements would stick together more or less permanently. Even though your lung is trying to collapse again, it can’t, because of the staples and the glue. But even though your lung can’t completely collapse, little pockets of air get in between the lung and the chest cavity, and that’s what you feel when you breathe in too deeply
After you get out of the hospital, on your 17th birthday, after a Christmas Eve surgery and Christmas with a morphine drip, a catheter, and a day-long marathon of Trading Spaces, the pain goes away. After two months, it’s completely gone, although the skin around the surgical incisions on the right side of your ribcage is still numb. After three months, even that is back to normal, although you’ll always have a series of frankly pretty badass scars under your bikini top. You go back to class after Christmas break with everyone else, and only take a week off of your 6-days-a-week, 3-hours-a-day dance schedule.
You tell people that the hospital was boring, and it was. You enjoy making new acquaintances squirm by telling them about the tube the doctors put through your ribs to suck the air out of your chest cavity, the briefcase-sized machine that pumped the air out through the tube, and the time the tube kinked under the skin right after you’d switched from IV to oral pain meds and the doctor yanked it out and replaced it before you were able to tell him that you didn’t have any pain medicine in your system. Your first kiss is with a boy you met at a party who’d had the same surgery. He was still in the two-month window where the skin on his ribcage was numb, and you flirted by comparing scars. The moral of the story is always that, even though it was the worst pain you’ve ever been in, when it went away, it went away completely. You can’t even call it to mind any more—your brain isn’t powerful enough to make your body feel the things you felt when you went to the hospital.
Except on the days, just before a snowstorm, when you feel the staples.