‘I found myself gasping for air. It did not matter how much I tried to breathe in, it felt as if nothing was going inside my lungs. A few days later I developed a bit of a cough. I could have died while on the mountain.’

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“A healthy person has a thousand wishes, but a sick person only one. Never in my life did I imagine that it would be me with only one wish. But it happened and it has been one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. Never again will I take my health for granted and I’m hoping, that if you’re able to read all the way through this exceptionally long novel, that you might not take your health for granted too.

I didn’t even think I took my health for granted, having lost loved ones I thought I valued all that there was to life, knowing that I was lucky to live while they have passed. It is a very different experience though, being told that you are lucky to be alive and having to endure the most pain you have ever felt and overcome various obstacles that once were so simply mundane and easy.

If you had asked me 6 months ago what I was most excited about in life, I would have replied with something along the lines of my upcoming travels that would extend until April. I would be revisiting Indonesia and Nepal before backpacking extensively through India and then off to island hop through Asia. Afterwards it was my plan to return home and complete another stint of remote work before completing a skydiving course that would allow me to finally become a skydiving instructor.

I had the next 6 or so months planned out pretty well, accounting for all different kinds of hiccups. Never did I imagine that my own personal health would impact on my life plans. This is something that I have never thought to account for being a young, healthy individual.

In November, I embarked on a hike through a remote region of Nepal with two good friends. Having hiked Everest Base camp (E.B.C) a few years earlier, I knew exactly what I was in for and was prepared more so than the last time. The Manaslu region was beautiful in a way that encapsulated some of the most rugged and unforgiving landscapes that Nepal, and dare I say it- the world has to offer.

Courtesy Amanda McDonald

The hike was arguably more strenuous than E.B.C, so when I found myself breathless quite early on in the trek, I thought maybe this was the reason. At 2,000 meters above sea level I found myself gasping for air. It did not matter how much I tried to breathe in, it felt as if nothing was going inside my lungs. Trying not to panic each time this hit, I would slow down and stop if need be before powering on. What I found most troubling, was that I was not even at an altitude where these kinds of symptoms are meant to kick in.

Courtesy Amanda McDonald

A few days later I developed a bit of a cough. Maybe it was just the cold air and dust? But combined with my breathlessness it was setting me back so far that I felt terribly for my friends A 4-hour day of hiking was soon turning into an 8-hour day because of how slow I had to go to be able to breathe. My friends were pretty great though, insisting that they were okay with it as it allowed them to be able to take in all the great views.

Courtesy Amanda McDonald

With a longer day ahead, I had to put my foot down. I confidently knew that my body would not be able to go much further in this condition and so our group settled for an unscheduled rest day, so I had a chance to recover.

After this rest day, I was no better and one more day of hiking left me in the worst condition that I have ever been in. Not only was I unable to walk more than a few steps without gasping for air, sometimes I would find myself stationery and not being able to breathe as well. This was frightening to say the least and so I swallowed my pride and decided to finally receive the medical help I so desperately needed.

As I left my friends to continue on and finish the hike, I waited in an extremely remote village nestled in amongst the Himalayas. It took nearly 2 days before a helicopter arrived. 2 days of freaking out in subzero temperatures. I spent the entire time underneath 5 blankets, in a room where various people would pop their head in to make sure I was still alive.

Courtesy Amanda McDonald

Once on the helicopter and hooked up to oxygen, I embarked on an hour flight to Kathmandu. We joked earlier that at least I would be getting a scenic flight of the Himalayas, but this was not scenic. It was terrifying and traumatic. We flew over a helicopter crash site that coincidentally had taken off from the same helipad only a month or so earlier. The view was shrouded with clouds and as they cleared, ominous mountains appeared in front of us as if we would crash straight into them.

I kept looking at the pilots faces, but they must have been excellent poker players, so I tried to relax as much as I could. Just focusing on my breathing and holding tight to my seat as if that would help save me if anything happened.

Landing in Kathmandu, I was shuffled onto an ambulance which sped its way to the hospital, mounting every single curb in the city. I nearly fell out of the stretcher at one stage.

Upon arrival I had a few abnormal ECGs and so was referred to a cardiac specialist. I spent a week in this hospital, undergoing extensive testing, mainly focusing on my heart. The doctor admitted he wasn’t quite sure what was going on, so they tried various avenues of treatment in hopes that something would work. They suspected a severe chest infection and altitude sickness. I was hooked up to oxygen, had to wear a nebulizer every hour, a cocktail of drugs delivered via IV and also in pills. Slowly, I saw some improvement and after the week in hospital I was made to rest a week in a hotel before being given clearance to fly home.

Courtesy Amanda McDonald

I could not even carry my bag on my back into the airport, but I was keen to get back to Australia. I got a few looks on the plane because I had to wear a mask, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to get back home and to safety.

I landed at the beginning of December, and since not showing any improvements in the next 2 weeks as well as developing some chest pains, I decided to seek out a second opinion.

After a CT scan and spirometry tests, I was referred to a respiratory specialist. They had found a massive cyst in my lung, as well as hyperinflation and terribly poor spirometry results.

Before I could make it to the specialist, I was taken to the ER with complaints of severe chest pains. I spent a few days in hospital undergoing extensive testing with no real conclusion except that I needed surgery to remove the cyst from my lung. They couldn’t be certain this was causing the chest pains.

For the next few weeks, my breathing improved ever so slowly. I went from not being able to walk a couple of steps without taking breaks to being able to walk around a shopping center at a slow pace. I was put on a daily limit of walking no more than 20 minutes a day or 1.2km- whichever came first. Eventually my breathing regained to a somewhat normal degree, however the chest pains lingered and seemed to be getting worse at times.

Eventually, I had my surgery consult where I was delivered the news that I should no longer scuba, skydive or fly in small unpressurised aircrafts because the risks are too great. Essentially the cyst would rupture, my lung would collapse, and this could result in respiratory/ cardiac arrest. I would still also not be able to do these things after my surgery, because I would still be prone to the risk of a collapsed lung.

I was also told I was lucky to be alive; I could have died while on the mountain, in the helicopter, or my 2 flights home. It’s more of a mystery as to why I didn’t.

This news absolutely broke my heart. For some reason, I seemed to focus not on the part about nearly dying, but about my future limitations. I cried in my appointment and for days after. I could not imagine a life without these very things. All I wanted was to be a skydiving instructor. My backup career choice? A helicopter pilot. My current job? working in remote areas, some of which are commonly accessible by small aircraft. My hobbies? literally everything I was told not to do.

When I went home, I looked at my bucket list that has about 350 things on it and had to cross nearly 200 off.

What does someone have left when their hobbies, career and passions are taken away? Your family. Your Friends. Your Health.

While I was absolutely devastated to have these things taken away, I realized that there are others who are far worse off than me. It would seem silly to dwell on these, when there are people out there who have never skydived, who have never walked! or who have never even lived to the age that I am.

I felt incredibly embarrassed with myself, to be frank. How could I be acting as if the world is over when I have everything else in life so good? I have a great support network of friends and family. I have a place to call home. I have access to fresh drinking water, food, free healthcare. The list could go on.

I am extremely grateful for the life experiences I already have at the grand ol’ age of 23. I’ve hiked to Everest base camp, I’ve scuba dived with thresher sharks in the Philippines, I have met the Masai tribe in Kenya. I have camped in the Serengeti with lions and elephants walking by my tent. I have solo hiked the Kumano Kodo trail in Japan, I have floated in the dead sea in Israel, I have worked and lived with some of Australia’s oldest living people in the most beautiful and remote places I have ever seen. These are just a small handful of things that I am grateful to have experienced.

Courtesy Amanda McDonald

I vowed to myself that I would not let myself and others down by continuing to take these things as well as the small things for granted.

My surgery planned was likely going to be a lobectomy, done via keyhole. Minimally invasive but meaning I would lose half my lung. I was terrified. Apparently, you can live a normal life missing half a lung, but I would have some limitations with my lung capacity. After already experiencing breathlessness, it terrified me that I would experience anything like that ever again and for life.

When I went under, my surgery was changed to a major procedure that was no longer minimally invasive. A large incision was made in-between my ribs, which would then be cut through, allowing the ribs to be moved apart to be able to gain access to my lung (thoracotomy). While this meant that I would be in a whole lot more pain and significantly longer recovery, I am grateful that this was done because it allowed me to not lose half of my lung! My surgeon was able to remove only a small portion. This was never discussed as an option in my consult as he thought it would not be possible, but I am so incredibly grateful that this was able to happen. I now should have no issues with my lung capacity.

Courtesy Amanda McDonald

The following 8 days in hospital were some of the hardest days of my life. I remember waking in ICU, coming in and out of consciousness, vision blurry and all I could feel was pain. Screams escaping my mouth before I could even register it was happening.

When My parents finally received the call that I was awake and stable, 7.5 hours after I left them in the hospital waiting room, they quickly rushed over to see me.

I don’t think I have ever taken my parents love for granted, but more so I’ve never realized how much they do love me. I had this realization over the next 8 days when they would religiously visit me, sometimes even twice a day. When they were able to come into my room, the nurses had assisted me to sit up so they could do a quick check over of everything. Instantly both parents are by my side, holding my hands as I tried to not scream as ferociously as I had in ICU. It is so hard to even describe the pain I was feeling. I was hooked up to a PCA machine that allowed me to self-administer a dose of morphine every 5 minutes, I had a ‘block’ on my back, similar to an epidural, which administered anesthetic every 20 minutes. I was on a cocktail of oral medications to help with the pain, and yet it seemed like none of it was even remotely taking the edge off.

Seeing the helpless and worried expressions in my parents faces broke my heart. I can’t even imagine how hard it would be to have to twiddle your thumbs for 7 and a half hours and then to see your daughter in such an incredible amount of pain, knowing there is nothing you can do to help. Not to mention it was a confronting sight to see the endless amount of tubes and wires coming from my body. On top of the PCA machine and block, I had a halter monitor, IV, spO2 monitor on my head, oxygen tubes, a catheter, a compression device on my legs and most confronting of all, a tube emerging from inside my chest, which was there to drain excess blood and any air leaks coming from my lung.

I did not sleep that night at all. The intubation had been pretty rough on my throat, larger than normal equipment was required as they had to intubate entirely into one lung for my operation. What that felt like afterwards was that I was constantly choking unless I was constantly sipping on water.

Not even being able to hold a cup to my lips made this all the more worse. Thankfully, I had a pretty great team of nurses who were able to do this for me.

Never before had I felt so dependent on others.

To go from a perfectly healthy, individual one day to someone who cannot hold a cup of water to their lips is quite confronting. To not be able to walk unassisted, or even have the dignity of going to the toilet. When my catheter was inserted, I unfortunately bypassed the line, meaning that I essentially urinated all over my legs and there was nothing I could do.

Every ounce of privacy and independence was stripped from me, yet in the same moment every ounce of kindness, compassion, empathy, understanding, caring and every other positive emotion in the entire world was given to me. There were moments I never dreamed of happening in that hospital that eventuated. In the later days of my recovery, where all of my tubes and whatnot was finally removed, I was allowed to have a shower. I didn’t expect something so simple to be so hard, and to have to experience myself sitting naked under the shower, screaming and crying while nurses ran to get me more morphine.

Eventually, the pain became more manageable. By day 8, I was allowed to walk (well, be wheeled) out of the hospital and go home to work on my recovery.

Courtesy Amanda McDonald

I’m still in the early days of recovery and everything is still so hard. I have trouble opening a car door, walking up stairs or even getting into and out of bed. But to be where I am now and remember where I was such a short time ago, I find absolutely unbelievable that our bodies can heal and adjust so quickly.

I have a long road ahead to be back to normal, but the worst is over.

This experience has been the most incredibly humbling, eye opening and life changing event in my life. Losing all of my independence has made me realize how lucky we are to be able to walk, to see, to breathe. As I overcame milestones of being able to get out of bed, walk a few steps or even brush my hair it has made me truly realize and understand that there are those less fortunate out there who are unable to do these things.

Not to mention, this is probably what our future will look like in some way if we don’t take care of our health. I don’t ever want to have to experience this amount of pain again, or to have to stay in a hospital ever again.

I’ve been inspired to take care of my health and my body more so than ever before. Even though the cyst is being ruled as congenital or forming on the hike, I don’t think I could ever allow myself to be in a position that would increase the likelihood of any disease or disorder due to bad lifestyle choices. I find it sad that I have had to experience this to have this realization, but I guess it is better than not realizing when it is too late.

I’m sharing this experience with you, because I am hoping that maybe if there is even one person that reads this and is inspired to better their health or stop taking the small things for granted then it would be worth it.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank all of my family and friends who have been the greatest support in one of the hardest times in my life. I’m incredibly grateful for all of the hospital visits, the well wishes, the endless messages and phone calls. I’m grateful for all of the lifts everywhere and to doctors’ appointments galore, and I am thankful to my family members for taking me in and supporting me. I’m also grateful for the gifted chocolates I got to eat at 3am when I was all maxed out on my morphine.

I’d also like to express how grateful I am for all of the medical staff who helped me. Not only am I thankful to my surgeon and his team, but also to the doctors that oversaw my care and the many nurses that helped me on a daily basis. Their work is absolutely admirable and the impact they have had on me is unlike none other.

I’m proud to have friends that are nurses and others who are studying and working in the medical field, knowing that they do this kind of thing every day.

So, if you’ve managed to read all this way, then I would like to stress something- if you feel like something isn’t quite right with your body, please seek a second opinion. Not only am I so so lucky to be here, I’m lucky that the cyst was found before it could wreak any more havoc.

I hope that even for one day that I’m able to inspire someone to feel anywhere near how grateful I am to be alive. To realize that life is unpredictable in ways we could never imagine and to be thankful for our health, our family and our friends.

Also, on a lighter note, I’d like to let you know that while I was drugged out I called my dad at 3am specifically requesting he bring me some boiled lollies (yuck?), I also found myself talking out loud a few times when I thought I was just thinking. There was a time where I put avocado, peanut butter and raspberries on a rice cake to eat and though this was normal, Also thought I heard voices coming from my bathroom sink- but hey that one turned out to be real so I guess that’s a story for another time!”

Courtesy Amanda McDonald

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Amanda McDonald of Australia. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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