The Ten O’clock Class
by Celeste Cheyney
This wasn’t supposed to be happening to someone like me. I’d always had good habits and had been blessed with good health. I had recovered well from the surgery performed in early August. Now it was November, and I was supposed to be in class, engaging in profound discussions about Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. However, here I was, stuck at home with pneumonia, on my fourth round of antibiotics, having chest pains and shortness of breath and sleeping all day. Not only was this scary, it was a waste of time! My friend and I had planned a European riverboat cruise for May. I couldn’t allow this to interfere with it. I needed to get back to my life.
I called the office every day. This doctor, being compassionate, always returned my calls. I asked questions and pleaded for help. “You’re one of the best pulmonologists in New York,” I said in my sweetest voice. “I know you won’t let me down.”
After a while he must have been tired of our little routine. “Okay, you win,” he said finally. “I’ll send you a script for a pulmonary rehab program. However, you must make a promise. Unless it’s an emergency, you will not call this office again. See you for a checkup in three months.” Success at last.
When the script arrived, I read it right away. Mild emphysemic changes to the lungs, accompanied by two nodules. That first part could mean that I had emphysema. That was a form of that horrible condition Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD. Maybe the doctor hadn’t mentioned it, because he knew it would terrify me. I couldn’t call him, so I began to read scores of websites. I always worry a lot and expect the worst to happen, so I fixated on the most alarming claims. COPD is usually caused by smoking but not always. It is irreversible. Your lung capacity deteriorates over time until you can barely catch your breath. Some drugs that relieve symptoms may cause suicidal tendencies. Nodules in the lungs could mean you have lung cancer. Life expectancy after a diagnosis of COPD is two to four years.
By the time the paper work for the rehab program went through, it was the middle of December. The first day at rehab was quite challenging. A short, stout middle-aged woman with closely cropped brown hair was waiting at the door. She resembled an angry bulldog ready to attack. Her hands were on her hips and she was frowning as if she were going to reprimand me.
“Hello. I’m Olga, the senior respiratory therapist here,” she uttered. “The ten o’clock class is about to begin.” She pointed to a large clock on the wall. “You are scheduled to be here for one hour every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday starting at 10 o’clock for twelve weeks. You must be here on the dot. For everyone’s safety, you will use the equipment exactly as you’re told. We do not want any accidents. Do you understand?” It had been a long time since I was treated like a pupil in grammar school.
The woman went on. “The disease you have is a terrible one, and it will get worse with time. All we can do is try to help you live with it.” Well that was reassuring. There was something about her behavior that was familiar. Who was it that she resembled? One thing was clear. This was not someone you crossed.
A slightly younger, pudgy woman with long bleached blonde hair and a round flushed face dashed over, as if to rescue me.
“Hi, I’m Kathleen,” she chimed with a smile. “I work with Olga.” She had a friendly, relaxed manner. It was easy to feel comfortable with her. This one might make it possible to survive here.
We stayed in the corridor and Olga described the program. “We provide an aerobic exercise regimen, monitor your vital signs, and teach you coping skills. You’re thin, so you will need advice about nutrition. You will have to eat six small meals a day. Otherwise you could waste away to nothing.” For my entire life I had proudly avoided noshing. Now eating every few hours was good for me?
The six-minute test to see how much distance I could cover came next. I scurried around and around in a circle while Olga shouted out numbers and Kathleen wrote them down. I hadn’t seen anything like this since my fifth-grade gym class.
We entered the rehab center, a long, narrow room whose walls were plastered with posters and charts labeled COPD. Each long wall was lined with exercise equipment – treadmills, arm bikes, stationary bikes, and elliptical machines. One corner had a low shelf with different sized free weights and small exercise posters above them. Hanging from a hook was a jump rope tied in a loop. What could that be for? Under it were oxygen cylinders lined up like a marching army. A hunched over old man was going on about how much he hated Obama while a blonde woman with a rasping voice kept saying, “Yeah.”
“Meet your classmates,” said Kathleen. Tom, who was exercising on an arm bike, greeted me with a smile. He had a ruddy complexion and white hair pulled back in a pony tail. On the floor next to him was an oxygen cylinder with narrow tubes running to his nostrils. “It’s my own fault,” he sighed with a shrug. “Two packs a day for sixty years. Now that I’m eighty, it’s caught up with me.”
Rose, the woman with the rasping voice, was on the arm bike next to him. She was a short, tubby blonde, probably in her seventies, with a pumpkin-shaped face. She smiled and greeted me warmly. She, too, was attached to an oxygen cylinder that was by her side. “A pack and a half,” she confessed.
Loretta was on the treadmill. She was a tiny woman with a halo of voluminous frizzy red hair. She seemed anxious and depressed but managed to smile. “I quit five years ago, but I can still barely walk from the kitchen to the living room without getting short of breath.”
Carl, the hunched over old man, was going on now about how much he hated Hillary. He shuffled over and scowled at me. “I’m eighty-eight and my habits are none of your business,” he barked.
I had begged for the opportunity to be in this program, but actually being here was surreal. Aside from puffing on a few Marlboros with friends in high school, I had never smoked a day in my life! What was I doing in a pulmonary rehabilitation program with people like this? They were so different from anyone I knew. What would we possibly have to talk about? They were here because they had made a bad choice. I had made some bad choices in my life too, but when it came to health I’d done everything right. Still, if I actually had this terrible disease, I was one of these people. I would have to make the best of it.
Olga handed me a rescue inhaler and a folder containing information and homework. She said that was all for today, then added, “On Monday, be here at 10 o’clock on the dot.”
“This looks like an excellent program,” I said, forcing a smile. I had to make it work.
Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I was there at 10 o’clock on the dot. It was all I had scheduled for the winter. I hated missing study groups, but it was flu season and being exposed to lots of people was too risky. Well ,going to rehab would be better than sleeping all day.
Olga expected everyone to follow her orders. You couldn’t go one minute over the allotted time on a machine. You couldn’t change any of the settings. If you began to swing your arms while walking on the treadmill, she saw it even if she was entering data into the computer and the back of her head was facing you. “Stop that and hold on. You’ll fall off and break your neck!” she shouted. If anyone slouched, it was, “Sit up straight!”
At first I felt like an outsider, but soon I was chatting with everyone. After a while I actually looked forward to being there. When you walked in everybody welcomed you. When one of us had a good oxygen reading, we all cheered. The conversation was not intellectual and we avoided politics, but there was plenty to talk about – an episode of Blue Bloods, real estate near Orlando, a Knicks game, a recipe for spare ribs. I learned about everyone’s life. These were decent people who had faced enormous challenges. They had this terrible disease and were putting up a good fight. I shouldn’t have been such a snob. I shouldn’t have been so judgmental about their smoking. If I’d been in their shoes, I might have smoked too!
Friday was Olga’s day off. Kathleen was joined by her pal Daisy, the free-spirited therapist with long wavy white hair. We spent most of the time laughing about our common enemy. Loretta and I started swinging our arms on the treadmill. We ramped up the speed. Daisy explained where the rope hanging on the hook had come from. “We gave it to Nurse Ratched as a joke last Christmas, so she could beat the patients into submission. She didn’t think it was funny.”
So that was why Olga seemed familiar. She resembled the infamous Nurse Ratched! Actually, that wasn’t quite fair. Nurse Ratched was a cold heartless tyrant who destroyed her patients’ egos. Olga made insensitive comments and treated you like a child, but she didn’t mean to inflict any harm. According to Daisy she had been a gym teacher in a Catholic school. Well, that explained a lot. “She can’t help herself,” said Kathleen.
I played it down, but I was always able to exercise more vigorously than anyone else. After a while my breathing was better and my stamina was increasing. Maybe soon I would be able to go back to my regular gym. If I actually had COPD, how odd to be doing so well.
In mid-March I had my last session. I was kind of sorry to be leaving. I would miss the camaraderie and felt a bit guilty about leaving the others behind. This was not the 10 o’clock class I would have chosen, but it had given me what I needed – a place where I could regain my strength, learn how to cope, and have some fun. Now it was time for the visit to the pulmonologist.
“Well you kept your promise. You didn’t call the office,” he said with a grin. “How was rehab?”
“It helped me in more ways than one. Thanks for getting me into the program.” Then I blurted out the important questions.
“Do I actually have COPD? If I do, will I be able to fly to Europe? Will I need my own oxygen supply on the plane?”
“Did I ever say you have COPD?”
“Well, yes, kind of. Your script said mild emphysemic changes in the lungs.”
He started to laugh. “Of course you have mild emphysemic changes in your lungs. So do a lot of people your age. It’s not just the knees that make it hard for seniors to climb stairs. That doesn’t mean you have anything serious.”
“Oh?” I hadn’t really taken that in. I was too busy worrying about that other issue. “What about the nodules?” I asked.
“You do not have COPD, so to get you into a program I had to be creative. Without the nodules in the diagnosis you wouldn’t have been accepted. Don’t worry about them. They’re quite small, and small nodules are almost always benign. I was pretty sure your symptoms were due to the pneumonia and that eventually it would resolve itself. I admire your spirit and perseverance. That’s why I wrote the script. I knew the rehab program would help you. I figured if you wanted something that badly, you deserved to have it. Flying won’t be a problem for you. Have a great time in Europe.” He added some advice. “You shouldn’t worry so much. And when you read something, be more careful about the conclusions you draw.”
While working with a remarkable woman who was Jewish, British, and Deaf, I was inspired to write a memoir about the woman’s experiences in England during World War II. It was published by Gallaudet University Press as part of Deaf Women’s Lives. Always inspired by the IRP, I am delighted to be part of it again.