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Swimming in fear

From the Winter 2013 issue of Scrubs

Not…enough…air. I felt it, like an electric current going from the tips of my fingers all the way to my toes, as my legs kicked, my arms moved in concert. Thank God I was wearing flippers—no way I would have made it otherwise. Got to the wall, stuck my head above water, breathed in, desperate, panicked. I was swimming laps at the pool at my gym, but it felt like I was going to die.

Breathlessness. The first time I witnessed it I was a nursing student. My patient’s breathing rate was severely suppressed, a side effect of the opioids she was getting for pain. Some narcan—the reversal agent for narcotic pain meds—brought her out of respiratory depression, but even fully conscious her O2 sats were dangerously low. Her primary nurse called a code and they intubated her at the bedside. The thing I remember most, before they sedated her in order to stick the tube down her throat, was the look of terror on her face. Help me, her eyes said, I can’t get enough air.

I recently turned 47, and looking toward that birthday decided to do something that would provide a mental breather from work while solidifying my commitment to regular exercise. I signed up for individual swimming lessons with a coach at my gym. The lessons were cheaper than I expected, and I told myself I would save money on healthcare in the future because I’d be making myself more fit.

Once I started, the lessons turned out to be anything but easy—or mentally freeing. It wasn’t the physical work of the lessons—improving my freestyle stroke, mastering flip turns—but what the lessons brought up for me emotionally. The overwhelming feeling I took away from swimming was fear.


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Theresa Brown, RN

Theresa Brown, RN, lives and works in the Pittsburgh area. She received her BSN from the University of Pittsburgh, and during what she calls her past life, a PhD in English from the University of Chicago.

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