I saw my first autopsy when I was seventeen. Two months after my high school graduation, I watched a saw cut into the head of a nine-year-old girl born with cystic fibrosis. With the smell of death permeating the air, I believe I learned how precious life was before my friends left for college in the fall and I felt left behind.
Six years later, at the third hospital I worked at, a coworker told me I was old for being in my twenties. Old? Rachael was old. She was thirteen with cystic fibrosis. Medical advances and research helped her live to experience teen angst. I did attend her autopsy too though I admit I hesitated. We had become close. I spent hours with her performing therapy to extend her life. As I stared at the blebs of mucous clogging her lungs, the size of her enlarged heart overworked from pumping against her damaged lungs, I further understood the purpose of my job.
It is human nature to take our bodies for granted. We seldom think of our heart muscle until there is an acceleration of the beat or a dysfunctional rhythm. Consider as humans, we breathe over ten thousand liters of air each day. That is a large amount to ponder as the interest in our environment increases with cautionary messages abundant in our news about our carbon footprints.
Over the years, I attended numerous births to ensure infants took that important first breath and continued breathing, too many deaths when patients took their last breath. I treated burn victims and cancer patients. Along the way, I have been at the bedside when patients told me about their return from the beyond.
After being a respiratory therapist in eight hospitals in four states for thirty years, I attended a conference in Boston. I discovered with medical advancements cystic fibrosis patients now were living into their fifties. To live, there is a time investment though, hours to clear out that mucous just to continue breathing.
There are many lessons we could learn from patients struggling with cystic fibrosis. Here is the one I am grateful I learned while understanding they work daily just to breathe. Every breath matters.
Humans need to breathe to live. We, a collective we, have to stop taking our planet for granted. For all of us to appreciate life, to be able to breathe, we will need to move forward making advances to resolve our carbon issues.
I believe in our future. I have witnessed the progress of one disease. We are certain to cure our shared problem. Life and our breath depend on us.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.