Surviving to live another day

It started innocently enough: I was complaining about being short of breath at a dinner party. Several physicians were at the table; one suggested that it might be possible to increase lung capacity by doing exercises with a spirometer. “I’m not a pulmonologist,” he said, “so I don’t know; it’s just a thought.”


The thought was planted. I fired off an email to my primary care physician (we love Kaiser Permanente) asking if she knew of such a thing, and/or might refer me to someone to give it a try. She replied with a request that I come into the office so she could evaluate me. Well, grump, grump; all I wanted was a quick fix, but anyway. It takes all of about 10 minutes to get to the Kaiser Medical Center. I arrived for an 11 AM appointment.

The good Dr. Tang patiently explained that she did not prescribe via email. And because it had been 2 or 3 years since we last examined the heart/lung situation she would like to do another work-up, to see about this shortness of breath business. She went very lightly on the issue of my being 83 years old for heavens sakes, although she did mention she had 60-ish patients in worse shape than I. (This is a compliment, coming from one’s physician whom one reminds of her mother, although I was still looking for some magic way to walk uphill without having to stop and catch my breath.)

She then ordered a zillion blood tests, an EKG and a chest X-ray. Still grumping a little, I set out for all these, vowing that if even the smallest of lines appeared I would just come do it all another day. It took me roughly 3 minutes to get in for the EKG, less for the X-ray, and when I got down one more floor to the lab and pulled ticket #372 the automated voice was already saying “Now serving #372 at Station #4.” After dutifully following all these instructions, I went home to take a nap.

Within an hour, a voice mail message arrived from my doctor. “Your tests are fine, I don’t want to alarm you. But I’d like for you to come back in right away. Just tell the front desk you’re here.” Alarmed, I set out for the Medical Center once again. Lung cancer. Definitely. A spot on the lung showed up on the X-ray, and I will definitely die of lunch cancer in the immediate future. fear

Fortunately, the 10-minute drive didn’t allow too much time to contemplate my impending demise. “No, your X-ray is fine!,” she said. “Your lungs are fine! It’s just this one test that came back pretty high. It’s a screening test for possible blood clot. These tests are set very high because we don’t want to miss anything. Still, I want to be sure there’s no clot there that could indicate a pulmonary embolism causing your shortness of breath.” OK, I prefer not to have clots floating around in my bloodstream.

So does Dr. Tang. Whereupon she ordered a CT scan – which meant walking uphill a block to the hospital where they have those fancy machines (and radiologists to read what the machines report.) “Once you’re done,” she said, “come back to the office and as soon as we have the results we can talk about them.” I set out on the brief uphill walk. Pulmonary embolism. Definitely. Isn’t that what did in my mother at age 70? Embolism, aneurism, something blood-clotty. I’ll probably die of pulmonary embolism before I get back down this hill.Grim reaper

It is now close enough to closing time that most Kaiser people are closing up. But the CT scan people wait for me, hook me up to the dye thing and run me back and forth through the machine. I walk back downhill, mildly optimistic because nobody gasped while I was getting dressed in the cubicle several feet from the scan people. With nobody now at the receptionist desk, I walk into the nursing/examining room area and tell a smiling nurse that I’ll be outside if Dr. Tang needs me. And sure enough, in another 5 minutes – not enough time to consider calling the crematorium – she comes bursting through the door saying she’s so glad I waited.

“As I said, these screens are set very high so that we don’t miss anything,” she begins. “In your case, there was nothing to miss. It was just a false positive.” I exhale. We talk briefly about how I might increase my exercise regimen if possible – which might even address the shortness of breath issue; I concede that I am, indeed, 83.

On the way home, no longer planning to die in the immediate future, I count the cost: six hours, several hundred dollars co-pay. And I give thanks for our Kaiser membership, modern medical technology and my good doctor.





  1. Fran, I thoroughly enjoyed and identified with your riff on the subject of nearly succumbing to a variety of fatal maladies until Kaiser reassured you you didn’t have any of them. Nicely written (and illustrated)!

  2. We are ALL thankful for the good news. And especially so for your awesome genes, dear friend. You are blessed as we are blessed who get to know you and hear and read your wonderful, insightful and ultimately laugh-out-loud humorous tales. So glad you got the check up; so glad your MD is as careful as she is; so glad Kaiser SF does the job they do and mostly glad you’re still walking up hill.

  3. Great blog post, Fran! I so admire your spirit and grit! Just keep on keeping on! That was an expensive bit of reassurance, but I’ll bet it was worth it!
    I’m sure slowing down, and I’m three years younger than you. But then, I do have certified COPD.

    1. COPD, yickkk. I’m not there yet, but even having quit smoking 53 years ago the ol’ lungs still grumble. What started this whole saga was what turned out to be that spirometer thing that is indeed useful (as I understand it) for COPD. We persevere, and persist.

  4. Yay that you’re okay, Frannie. I hope I’m in as good shape as you are when I’m 83. SOOOO glad you’re okay. When can we get together so I can give you something other than the virtual hug I am sending you in the meantime?? Oh, and btw, you write so wonderfully and the humor and illustrations were super!!! All my 💘

  5. Whew! I’m so glad for the happy ending 😀.
    It can be very scary to try and figure out if there is a diagnosis for symptoms. When I first worked on a cardiac step down unit in Hendersonville, NC I saw this happen time and again. Someone swearing they’d had a heart attack… symptoms and all. We’d observe them with a heart monitor for 24 hours. Wake em up through the night to take vital signs. Throw em on a stress test machine. Make sure they’re poked and prodded. Then discharge them home ready for a nap and a clean bill of health.
    It’s always good to return to your own bed
    Love you!

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