Breathe In, Breathe Out

A Soon-to-Be Father Checks Into the Hospital

By Jonah Hall

Personal History

ou’re too young to have pneumonia!” the six-foot-tall nurse with thick, round glasses and a nasal voice informs me Friday night as she enters the hospital room where I’ve been sequestered for two days. “Well, I guess anyone can get it…”

She takes my vital signs and then sets up the nebulizer, which lasts for about ten minutes. All I have to do is breathe in slowly and let the Albuterol do its magic. The treatment goes as you go, so you can stop and take a break and then go back to inhaling through the hand-held device. The nurse asks me some questions. I ask her some questions. I tell her we are expecting a little girl in about a month. I ask if she has kids.

“I hate kids,” she says, frowning. “I’ve seen some of my friends after they had kids and, well…I don’t think it’s for me.” She talks about her nieces and nephews in Minnesota.

I inhale. I exhale. Inhale. Exhale.

She has to pause and think. “Is it two nieces and three nephews or three nieces and two nephews? You know, I have a big family. My dad remarried and had more kids, so I have half-siblings. You never know. Some of them are in their late twenties and still trying to figure out what to do with themselves. One of ’em turned out to be a brainiac and he works in the Navy on a ship, doing engineering stuff. Yeah, you just want ’em to be successful, and you never know.”

I take out the inhaler. I respond that I understand, and that it’s also tricky how we define success.

The nurse goes on to relate an incident from one of her days off, when she was making homemade potato chips with a mandolin and sliced her finger badly. She couldn’t get the bleeding to stop and had to come in to the hospital to get a single stitch. It sounds like she was most upset by the fact that she had to come to the hospital on her day off—as if she opened her eyes that morning and said to herself, “I don’t care what happens today, but I’m not going to the hospital.”

By the end of the fifteen minutes, my airways have opened up, and I’m hoping I might get some good rest before Saturday morning. Instead, I notice my pulse is elevated. I stupidly check the side effects of Albuterol: elevated heart rate. As I take my deeper breaths, I wonder how long it will be until the Albuterol wears off.

y roommate, on the other side of the curtain, has a view of the trees and gets some sunlight during the day. I have a view of the walls, and the wall-mounted TV, and the nurses’ computers. I’ve kept the TV off, except for earlier Friday evening, when my wife came to watch the Celtics get destroyed by the Cleveland Cavs in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Finals. I’m a Celtics obsessive. We bought a toddler onesie that reads, “50% Mom, 50% Dad, 100% Celtics Fan.” Seeing the Celtics lose by forty-four points on Friday night in the hospital seemed fitting. I was recovering. The Celtics, without Isaiah Thomas, who went out with a hip injury, were in need of recovery. I’ve kept the television off the rest of the time. I can’t watch political news these days even when I’m in good spirits, so it was best to avoid it when in this state. I’ve mostly listened to podcasts and tried to sleep, between visits from my wife, dad, and step-mom.

My roommate is also young—he’s forty-five—and has been mostly healthy before this. He’d been admitted a few hours before me with a rare skin infection on his leg, which came after a bout of all-day vomiting, during which he’d scraped his shin along the corner of a tile tub while he was wiped out in the bathroom. The infection spread over the next few days, and he realized it wasn’t just a bruise. He is a boatwright, building and repairing boats for a living—always on his feet, loves tools, the type of guy who is usually mind over matter. Not easy for him to lie still in a hospital bed. He makes me laugh constantly (which isn’t easy when your lungs are filled with phlegm). We commiserate over many things. We’re both from the East Coast. Both had parents who divorced when we were young. Both had complicated family relationships. Both love Berkeley. He has a ten-year-old son and talks lovingly about being a dad and how much I’ll love it. One of the nurses insisted he sleep with his leg propped up by four pillows, taped strategically, and he curses the whole process. He snores like crazy.

After my nurse leaves, seemingly more cheerful than when she entered, my roommate says he once cut his finger so badly he needed to heat it with some tool, to close the wound. This guy is MacGyver.

wo days earlier, my wife had encouraged me to call the twenty-four-hour nursing care hotline and explain something I knew but didn’t know what to do about: more than a week after I’d initially developed a fever, and despite taking an antibiotic, I wasn’t getting better. The hotline nurse’s response led to an urgent care clinic, which led to the emergency room, which led to this much-needed hospital room. I had an infection in both lungs—this was the reason I hadn’t taken anything resembling a clear, deep breath in over a week.

The nebulizer treatment is usually given to asthmatics or people with bronchitis, helping to dilate the bronchial tubes and opening up the airways so you can breathe. I was told I could request it as needed. It helped me sleep more restfully on Thursday night—as restfully as possible in a hospital filled with all kinds of patients, one of whom I could hear at two thirty a.m. inexplicably shouting, “Overtime! Overtime! Overtime!” for about twenty minutes. Hours later: “Get me outta here! Get me outta here!” It was clear he was not happy. The nurses occasionally tried to help him, but it didn’t seem like much could be done. In our old apartment building, we had a neighbor, an older man named Lloyd, with a similar shouting-to-himself condition. He couldn’t walk very well, and he had to take three flights of stairs to get down to the laundry room. Lloyd was about fifty-five or sixty, living alone. He would curse to himself, “Hurry up, asshole! C’mon! Keep moving!” When he would arrive at the coin-operated laundry machine, he would scream, “Put in the quarter!” Our living room was fifteen feet away from the laundry room, separated by a not-too-thick wall.

“I am probably talking too much anyway, as is my tendency. Not a good idea when you’re trying to show how much oxygen you have in your blood while you walk slowly in a loop around the fourth floor of the hospital.”

Throughout the pre-dawn hours of Thursday morning I was dosed up on antibiotics and drifted in and out of sleep. The nurses change shifts every eight hours, so new people are coming in and out. The food service folks. The clean-up staff. Everyone was surprisingly friendly. The nurses took my blood in the middle of the night, and I suffered a constant need to urinate from the IV fluids and antibiotics entering my body throughout the night. Still, I was relieved and happy to be taken care of in this hospital room.

But finally, mercifully, the fever was gone. The headache was mostly gone. The chills were gone. The infection was clearing up, at last. I was recovering.

The doctor expected I would be released Saturday morning, as long as my oxygen levels weren’t too low. I was supposed to be around ninety-seven or ninety-eight percent, but I was at ninety or ninety-one. Imagine you’ve just run five miles, and sprinted at the end, and now you’ve stopped running and you’re trying to regain oxygen, but you just can’t slow your breathing down.

had my nurse walk on Saturday morning, hours before I hoped to walk out of the hospital and head home. Ngozi has four children, two graduating from college, one in college, and one about to start college. She is very methodical, calm, and knows what she’s doing. I want to ask her if she is from Nigeria, because an author whose books I haven’t read, but whose TED talk I’ve used in the classroom and whose interviews I’ve appreciated, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, is from Nigeria. But I don’t ask her. I am probably talking too much anyway, as is my tendency. Not a good idea when you’re trying to show how much oxygen you have in your blood while you walk slowly in a loop around the fourth floor of the hospital. I notice the monitor is reading around ninety or ninety-one percent.

The doctor comes in twenty minutes later, asking how I’m feeling.

I tell him, “Much better. I’m ready to get home and get some good rest.”

He’s concerned about the oxygen. I try to explain I was probably talking too much, and that my breathing is improving. He says I can be released, but I have to take it easy for a week, no working, just resting and building my lungs back up with this incentive spirometer, which measures air intake. Also, I need to set up a follow-up appointment and need to find a primary care physician. I’ve been lazily putting that off for years, to the chagrin of my wife and mom. I’m lucky enough to have good health coverage through my wife’s work, but I’ve not used it much, except for talk therapy over the years. Yes, I’m a talker.

As we’re heading out of the hospital, my wife has brought chocolates and a card for the nurses. I write out appreciations. I shower off all the sweat and stink and clamminess. I have a fresh pair of clothes. I feel slightly human again. We get the official release. The plastic IV thing stuck in the crook of my elbow for the last sixty hours is taken out. The small hairs around it are ripped off in the process. I’m a free man, much less sick than I was three days earlier.

e stop on the way home for groceries. I sit in the car, drinking water, trying to breathe normally. I think about how damn lucky I am to have health coverage and to live in a place with good hospitals. My hospital roommate paid over $30,000 out of pocket when his wife needed to come in a week early, before she went into labor, with complications related to her spine. He will have to pay out of pocket again for these three days. He says he can’t wait to read the line items. “$17 for Tylenol.”

I think about the fact that so many of our politicians refuse to view health care as a human right, and how often our country blames the poor for their poor health, keeping healthy food expensive while fast food chains thrive in the poorest places. I think about the five fast food restaurants within two blocks of the East Oakland Charter High School where I used to teach, and that I couldn’t convince most of my students to try drinking tea without sugar in it.

I think about this new administration and the Affordable Care Act and the repeal and replace insanity. The repulsive belief that nearly every conceivable pre-existing condition should keep people from receiving health coverage or services. That we are essentially telling our citizens, “If you’re not wealthy and healthy, you’re screwed.” A system that prioritizes profit over protection.

I’m thirty-seven years old. I have parents who are mostly healthy and I’ve been mostly healthy for the majority of my life. Working in schools, and in youth programs, I’ve had my share of sinus infections, head colds, and bugs, but I’ve been healthy. Together, my wife and I are fortunate that we’ve gotten through our physical ups and downs without any permanent damage or financial disaster.

Over the last several years, I’ve learned more about slowing my breath, deep breathing and calming one’s mind. The techniques have been helpful when dealing with minor and major stressors, and anxiety in general. I’ve used silence and deep breathing as a way to “reset” the classroom, and seen it make a real difference. I’ve also used breathing techniques and centering strategies individually with students who have impulse control or attention issues.

It’s impossible to appreciate each breath we take, but it helps if we slow our breathing down, and spend some deliberate time thinking about what we have and what we can be grateful for. It even helps recharge us so we can sustain our resistance in the fight for equality, in all ways, including health care.

I’m relieved to be home. I’ve never been more thankful for everything I have. My health. My family. Our life.

e’ll be back in the hospital soon. We’ll be meeting our baby girl. Her room is set up. Her crib is waiting. Her changing table. Her dresser with her tiny clothes. The tiny dresses and outfits hung up on tiny hangers in her closet. The tiny books we will read to her. The tiny stuffed gray and black horse we bought a few days ago. The cheerful, multi-colored circles of the new rug. The room transformed, now waiting for her to arrive.

Some people asked if we wanted a boy or a girl. I’ve always said, “We just want a healthy baby.”


Jonah Hall’s essay collection, The Dusty Jumper, was released earlier this year. He writes about the NBA and many other things at You can follow him on Twitter @darkoindex.