Exhaling with Maria

by Katherine Sharpe

I NEVER UNDERSTOOD ASTHMA BEFORE I MOVED IN WITH MY FRIEND Maria. I thought it was something quaint that happened to old people and the bookish young, and I went on thinking that until one day in the middle of the summer when Maria stopped being able to breathe. The first time it happened we were in a movie theater, watching Me and You and Everyone We Know. After a few minutes, the dialogue became punctuated by Maria's struggle to take in air; she sounded like a climber getting sick at high altitude. "I need," she rasped, "to go to the hospital."

Maria had mentioned before that her asthma could sometimes be bad enough to land her in the ER. I'd heard this without really absorbing it. She had one of those inhalers that she toted everywhere, just like other asthmatics. She was twenty-eight, healthy, a painting MFA student at Cornell University.

Everything seemed just fine until that day in the theater, when she hit her inhaler again and again. I heard the whoosh of the vaporizing medicine, but it didn't seem to be working. Her breathing dwindled to a tiny, mucousy pant. Not enough air to live on.

I've never driven so impatiently. By the time I led her into the hospital waiting room, Maria was almost crying with panic and frustration. The doctors whisked her away, past the curtains, and hooked her up to a machine pumping vaporized steroids, which steamed like a cauldron of witches' brew. By the time I joined her, she was breathing almost normally, but unable to talk with the hissing inhaler clamped between her teeth. A few hours later, they prescribed her a five-day course of oral steroids and cleared her to go home.

I'd love to say that was the end of her asthma trouble, but it wasn't. A month later it happened again.

It was a hot, humid Sunday at the end of summer in upstate New York. Our friends Yoel and Thomas were over, the four of us chatting and watching TV, when Maria's lungs started to rattle—a scary sound, like a boat hull scraping the pebbly bottom. This time, despondent and breathless, she did start to cry. She began looking for her spacer, which is a plastic chamber that fits onto the end of an inhaler and provides a space for the medicine to diffuse before the patient inhales it. You can take a hit directly, without the spacer (I've seen Maria do this plenty of times), but you don't get a deep enough draw and the medicine doesn't work as well—certainly not well enough to fend off a really serious attack.

Maria checked for the spacer in her purse. It wasn't there. Nor was it in her dresser, her room, or anywhere else.

"Do you need to go to the hospital again?" I asked.

"No!" she bellowed, as much as she could, but it was clear that she just meant "no" to the whole situation—the asthma, having to make a decision about the hospital, all of it. "No! I just need my spacer!"

Worried, trying not to act worried, I did what I could. I loaded her into the car and said we'd go try to buy a spacer. We visited two drugstores and one supermarket without luck, Maria gasping like a goldfish in a plastic bag, the two of us reaching depths of despair that I couldn't have imagined weeks before. "Try your inhaler anyway," I said, and she did halfheartedly, as if knowing it wouldn't help without the spacer, which it didn't.

When we got back to the house, Yoel and Thomas were still there on the front porch.

And that's when desperation gave birth to invention. We needed a spacer, and the stores didn't have one. So? What was a spacer, after all, but a hollow plastic thing with a hole in each end? My imagination scanned the bedroom, the front closet, the kitchen—"Wait! Wait!" I said. "I've got it!" What had popped into my mind was an image of our recycling bin—specifically, an empty bottle of Aquafina that I'd been drinking from at the gym. A hollow plastic thing with a hole in . . . one end. I'd need to make the other one.

After a couple of theatrical flourishes with a power drill, which were ineffective but totally impressed our guests, I hit on a simple solution: Cut an "x" on the side, near the bottom of the empty bottle—the actual bottom proved far too sturdy— with a utility knife.

I looked at Maria. "Give me your inhaler," I said, and pushed it through the "x". "And Yoel, come and hold it here while I seal it up."

Yoel steadied the inhaler so its mouth was just inside the bottle, and I sealed up the gaps between bottle and inhaler with clear packing tape (necessary for proper suction). Then I handed the contraption to Maria, who fit her lips around the mouth of the bottle and released a blast of medicine.

Whoosh.

The inhaler fired; the empty chamber filled with white mist. At my sides, my hands formed eager little fists, as if by clenching tighter I could make it work. And then I saw the look on Maria's face as she breathed the medicine in. Her brows lifted and she nodded slightly, her blue eyes widening with surprise. It was working. We all slackened a little, as though an unseen drill sergeant had put us at ease. Maria flopped down on the couch, exhausted, smiling with the joy of relief. Tomorrow she would go see her doctor and get a prescription for more powerful steroids, but the Aquafina bottle would get her through the night.

I flopped down next to her, also relieved, and high on adrenaline to boot. I squeezed my friend's shoulder and melted into a pleasant haze of pride at my ingenuity, and simple gratitude that for the next little while, at least, everything was going to be all right.

Katherine Sharpe has traded the meteorological extremes of upstate New York for the balmy weather of Sari Francisco, where she works as a writer and has been known to reuse a single water bottle for weeks on end. She edits a small magazine of first-person stories called Four Hundred Words (fourhundredwords.com).

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