The Importance of Breath
I had practiced yoga for 12 years before I really found my breath.
It was December in a small rural village in Uganda, and my head was smashed up against a woman’s large breasts, as she stroked my hair telling me everything was going to be okay.
The pain was greater than my little body could handle, but there was something about her calloused hands on my head that made me think maybe I would be.
Maybe I would be okay.
The ambulance felt like a very bumpy hovercraft as it flew down the freshly paved highway in pursuit of the capital. The lights flashed, and the siren wailed, but all I could hear was that woman’s voice. All I could feel were her rough hands.
Because if I dared to allow myself to feel anything more, the pain just might kill me.
I slid around on a metal table that was supposed to be a stretcher as we wove through the night. Remember that freshly paved highway I mentioned?
Well, unfortunately they decided to add speed bumps every 250 meters along the entire thing. Everytime we flew over a bump, my head squished further into her in chest, and I was catapulted back into my body for with an electric jolt of agony that took my breath away
Breathe, Kayla. Breathe. I mentally coached myself.
“Breathe,” I realized the voice was coming from outside of me, as well.
“Breathe, child,” she said.
So I did.
I closed my eyes, and tried to focus on my breath. If I was breathing, I was alive. And that was the goal. To stay alive.
A little backstory of how I ended up here:
About a week prior (I can’t remember how many days exactly, because this time really became a blur, honestly), I woke up with a bite on my right forearm- just above my wrist- that really hurt. It wasn’t that unusual. We were in rural Uganda, afterall. There was no shortage of insects.
I didn’t think much of it, got up, got dressed, and went to the school where I was teaching. Over the next 3 days, the dull ache turned red hot as the bite swelled beyond recognition, and an angry rash broke out under my armpits, all the way down my side.
You’d think this would be enough for me to go to the doctor, but no- bless my stupid little 24-year-old soul- I wanted to go out on a Friday night, instead. We went to the only club in town, and stayed out until 3 am dancing the night away.
Anytime someone grabbed my arm, tears sprang into my eyes from the unexpected pain- which I responded to by drinking more, so I didn’t have to feel.
The next morning, I woke up with a hangover with a forearm the size of my calf muscle. It had swelled up so much that the skin across my arm was taut with fluid. I also had a fever, so I finally, FINALLY, agreed to go to the doctor.
They brought me to the only clinic in town, where they poked and prodded me with curiosity. They admitted that they didn’t know exactly what to do with me, so they’d call a “specialist” from the next town over, instead.
While I waited, they gave me an IV, which- to this day- I still don’t know what it was. This was before I’d been to hospitals across the globe with dire, peculiar illnesses- which meant I didn’t know the protocol is to always ask before you get injected with anything.
The next thing I knew, I was on the floor, writhing in misery as (what felt like) acid poured through my veins. I threw up, foaming at the mouth- clearly having an allergic reaction, begging them to stop.
They told me it was normal for it to sting a little.
They’re almost done.
I didn’t have an advocate. I was completely alone in a rural clinic in Uganda. So, I took the entire IV bag, because I trusted them when they said it was normal to hurt.
They were doctors after all.
My body was on fire from a combination of the rash and the IV. I glanced down at the giant red ring around the bite on my mutated arm, wishing I could teleport out of there- but also knowing I needed to stay calm, to stay brave. For my own sanity.
Hours later the “specialist” came from the other village. He grabbed my arm, squinting at it through his spectacles, as if he were doing an actual examination.
“We need to drain it,” he said, promptly. “It’s too big. We will do the surgery now.”
“Okay,” was all I could manage to say. I was so tired, and so sick I didn’t have much fight left in me.
I didn’t ask one question about the “surgery,” all I cared about was the fact he promised it would make me feel better.
He bustled me into another room, and injected my arms several times with some sort of local anesthesia. They were giant needles that went so deep it made me want to puke again, but I held it together with the hope that this would all be over soon.
I told him I didn’t want to watch as he cut into me, so he created a little barricade with a towel so I didn’t have to see. With gloveless hands he grabbed the scalpel, and positioned the flashlight between his chin and chest.
Oh yeah, did I mention the power had also gone out. Which meant the only light source in the hospital were kerosene lamps that emitted such a foul smoke that my rash started to bleed. I was to the point where I could hardly keep a shirt on at all, because anything touching my skin was borderline unbearable.
So, there we were. Just me, a “specialist,” a scalpel, and a flashlight.
He went to work- cutting and squeezing for about 15 or 20 minutes, until he slapped a band-aid on the open wound and said:
“You’re done, you can go home now.”
I didn’t ask him how to clean the wound. I didn’t ask him if there was anything I should or shouldn’t do. I was just over the moon to get the hell out of this place with an arm that was nearing it’s more normal size again- so I said:
And took off.
I showered when I got home. Getting that measly little band-aid wet, because he didn’t say I couldn’t, right? I didn’t think anything of it.
My exhausted, sick body climbed into bed and fell into a blissful sleep that it so desperately needed.
A few hours later, I woke up with a start. I felt like a semi truck had just slammed right into my chest. I was cold. So cold. My body wouldn’t stop shaking even as I pulled every thick blanket on the bed on top of me.
I knew right away that something was seriously wrong, so I yelled out for help- hoping someone else who lived there would hear me.
I needed to text them. My phone was on the bedside table, which was so close, but so far. Reaching my rashy arm outside of the covers to get the phone felt actually impossible. I tried a few times, but everytime the fresh air hit my skin, I’d just cry harder.
I need to get help. Something is wrong. Okay, I can do this. I just need to grab my phone, and text one of the guys. It’ll be 30 seconds max. I got this.
A room mate came bursting in less than a minute after I pressed send on the text.
“What’s wrong, what happened?” He asked, immediately stressed at the sight of me.
“Don’t…..know…..so….sick,” was all I could manage to spit out between my chattering jaw.
This is when things start to get blurry, as I was in and out of consciousness.
I just remember a lot of yelling. A lot of people asking me to do things that I couldn’t do. Like answer questions. Or walk. My legs had apparently stopped working.
Someone somehow got me back to the clinic, where I stayed for 36 hours in between consciousness. They treated me with countless IV bags for malaria, because they were convinced this was the problem.
I wanted to talk, to fight, to question, but nothing would come out. I was so weak. And I was so tired. I just kept taking every single thing they injected into me.
No one seemed concerned that my legs weren’t working, or that I couldn’t stay conscious for more than minutes at a time. No one seemed concerned that I couldn’t form sentences anymore. And no one looked under that same, dirty band-aid to see if maybe, just maybe this had something to do with it.
Finally, the director of the program where I worked showed up and said:
“We need to get you to Kampala,” with his gaze to the ground, like he was somehow ashamed at seeing me like this.
“Okay,” I croaked.
I don’t know how long it was between him saying that, and an ambulance coming. All I know is that the sun was out when he came in, and the stars were out by the time I was being shuffled into a vehicle that looked more like hertz than an ambulance.
I could hear some sort of commotion as they shoved me into the back.
“What’s going on?” I asked the nurse with the big chest and calloused hands.
“I don’t know, darling,” she said, waving me to lay down on her lap.
Turns out, there was another sick foreigner in the SAME tiny rural clinic in Uganda who had called for an ambulance to go to Kampala.
Wait, it gets weirder. This guy also had the last name NIELSEN.
So, when the ambulance came, and said, “this is for Nielsen,” we both tried to get in. Well, I actually did manage to get in, and he was waiting outside kicking off about it.
Look, I don’t want to discount anyone’s pain, but seriously this guy had food poisoning. He was walking and talking just fine. He literally could’ve taken a taxi, or even a bus to the capital if he needed to. Whereas, I had been using a bedpan for 2 days, hadn’t eaten in 72 hours, and couldn’t walk or talk at all.
Anyway, I still somehow managed to feel bad, so just said:
“Get in, we can share,” mostly because I just wanted to go, and also because there’s that nagging guilt of “doing the right thing” that somehow manages to haunt me even when I’m on the brink of death.
And he did.
Me, the nurse, and Nielsen #2 were crammed into literally what looked like a hatchback sedan with flashing lights on it. Because I was so immobile, they kept me on a “stretcher,” that was really the metal table which I’d slide around on for the next 4 hours straight.
Both of my arms ached. One from the bite, and the other from the now massively inflected IV that was still plugged into a dried up vein.
And all of that leads me here.
To the breath.
This was how I learned how to breathe.
As long as I’m breathing, I’m alive.
I closed my eyes, and listened for it.
I felt my belly balloon up, and deflate down.
Life. This was what life felt like.
I listened to my breath for the next 240 minutes, until the nurse with rough hands kissed me on the forehead, and passed me over to a group of men ushering me inside of a real hospital with lights and everything.
A female doctor shouted orders at them, as they covered my face with an oxygen mask, and removed the infected IV. She peeled back the band-aid, and tried her best to keep her composure, although tears still sprung to her eyes as she asked:
“Who did this to you?”
It was more of a rhetorical question, because I clearly couldn’t couldn’t answer with the mask on my face.
More shouting, more jabs. More blood tests. More pain.
I am alive.
Four days later I finally emerged from the foggy unconscious state I’d been in for nearly a week.
This is when I found out that the “specialist” who performed “surgery” on my arm under a flickering flashlight had neglected to tell me that he carved out about 2 cm deep into my arm. Whether it was his ungloved hands, unclean scalpel, bacteria from the bite itself, or that damn shower I took- somehow an infection entered my bloodstream, and I went septic.
The woman doctor looked me gravely in the eyes, and said:
“You are very lucky to be alive.”
But, I already knew that.
I already knew the nurse with the big chest and calloused hands was an angel watching over me in those moments that I floated up and over my body, and questioned whether I should stay or go. Her songs, and her words, and her grandmotherly kisses are what kept me alive.
She brought me back to my breath in that moment in the back of the ambulance on a Ugandan highway. She showed me what it means to really be alive.
Little did I know that this was, indeed, a new life I was about to enter into. That one little bite could change my whole life.
There was a death of me in the ambulance. The death of a healthy 20 something year old, and the birth of a young woman who would continue to struggle with her health for over a decade because of that one tiny bite.
The moral of the story is this:
Don’t wait for a near-death experience to find your breath, and appreciate your life. It’s all within you now, just waiting to be found.
Oh, and also- always wear bug spray.