On Being Unable to Breathe

Breathlessness is something I know a little about, having lived several years with advanced sarcoidosis and metastatic leiomyosarcoma in my lungs, but even so, the horror of what COVID-19 sufferers without access to oxygen are going through is beyond me. Every photo of someone in India or Brazil struggling to breathe makes me think how scared they must be, how helpless their family, friends and medical team (if they are lucky enough to have one) must feel, and how outrageous it is that we were all so unprepared.

Breathlessness of the kind experienced by those with bad COVID-19 is not some transient feeling of being puffed. It is more like an inner suffocation that makes movement, speech, all the things we take for granted, well nigh impossible. It is exhausting and relentless.* We read that Western countries are sending various kinds of aid, including oxygen concentrators and ventilators. I regularly use the one and pray I am never put on the other (if you know anything about ventilators, you will know why). What troubles me this morning, however, is the thought that the oxygen concentrators are unlikely to produce enough flow to be of any substantive help. Those with COVID-19 will go on suffering, their symptoms barely alleviated. Unless we have had COVID-19 ourselves or have had an analogous experience, e.g. a bad asthma attack, we won’t really understand, no matter how hard we try.

I do not know what we as individuals can do other than speak to our governments and donate to aid agencies, but both the situation in India and the rows about vaccines have highlighted the simple truth that we are one world, dependent on one another. Selfishness and generosity seem to go hand in hand among us, and no one has a monopoly on folly, but perhaps we need to reflect on what it means not to be able to breathe — not only in the obvious, physical sense, but also in the less obvious moral and ethical sense. Are we suffocating ourselves by shrugging off the sense of interconnectedness we ought to have? ‘Gesture aid’ is very like virtue-signalling: well-meant, but inadequate except as a way of easing our own conscience. It may sound over-dramatic but today the suffering Christ is to be found in a thousand places, in streets where people are dying for lack of air and an inability to breathe. That matters; so does our response.

* I have relied on the description given by someone who had COVID-19 badly. It sounds very like what those with serious lung disease experience, but worse.


14 thoughts on “On Being Unable to Breathe”

  1. Yes, breathlessness is truly awful and I salute you for living with it constantly for so long. I have asthma and once ended up in A&E with flu, pneumonia and asthma. I only remember praying that the Lord would take me because I felt so ill. The images of the funeral pyres in India should shock every nation into immediate action. Covax aims to vaccinate 20% of the developing world by the end of the year but this target won’t be reached unless western governments step up. It seems the only way of pushing them into action is make them realise that their own self interest is at risk by inaction. How sad that patent rights are more important than saving lives.

  2. Amen, dear Sister Catherine. For all those people unable to breathe properly, including those dependent on oxygen concentrators, lung function can deteriorate to the extent that exhaling carbon dioxide is impaired or stops altogether. The carbon dioxide then builds up in the body and produces increasing levels of toxicity, which, if not treated by ventilation, lead rapidly to the inevitable.
    My dear late wife, Barbara, succumbed to this problem over the last two years of her life, occasioned by severe rheumatoid arthritis attacking her ribcage and the subsequent development of pulmonary fibrosis and COPD.
    It is not pleasant to watch happen to anybody, let alone a loved one. More so, it terrible to be a sufferer. My heart goes out to all those in this position as a result of C19. The developed world has just about got Covid under control but with extreme losses all the same. For countries such as India or Brazil, the scale of the problem is so immense because of the absence of universal health care. Is it right that your chances of survival depend on where you were born and/or live? Absolutely not! But for the grace of our Lord must push us all to do what we can both individually and collectively to help our brothers and sisters in India, Brazil, Mexico and elsewhere with this awful pandemic.

  3. This post is linked to the recent one on corruption. India is not a poor country, indeed, it has a space programme. But it has its very rich and considerable numbers of very poor. Globalisation is just a giant game of monopoly played by the mega-rich – look at the shenanigans regarding the recent attempts in football to create an even richer super league. On this occasion, the fans who are at the bottom of the food chain used their considerable numbers to protest and reverse the decisions by the Premier League Clubs. Someone listened.

    Now imagine if the one billion Catholics gathered and protested after Mass one Sunday in every capital in the world, against the greed of an economic system operated to the benefit of the 1% to the detriment of everyone else.

    Prayer is essential. The dismissal at the end of Mass reminds us that we are called to action too.

  4. I pray and offer up gratitude that we live in a country blessed with resources, scientists, their research and vaccines, and also that we share this with poorer countries. When I had covid, my rib cage, shoulders and torso all ached from gasping to pull breath in.Luckily, as an asthmatic, I was lucky to have inhalers and antihistamines that sort of helped.
    Watching people and the situation in India is horrifying- without breath we are nothing. The suffering can’t be left to go on by richer countries. Pour your breath of life over our whole planet dear Lord.

  5. As a retired nurse I can say to watch someone struggling for breath is heartbreaking thing, your description touches a nerve.I can only hope that the oxygen concentrators could be used for people with low flow conditions such as COPD, thus releasing cylinders for people with high flow needs.
    Sending strength and resilience to you Sister.

  6. I was emailing a priest friend yesterday to see if he knew any way I / we might help in India. The government there is said to be repressing caritas and Mother Teresa‘s nuns’ activities besides being unable or unwilling to do anything themselves. He suggested writing to the nuncio https://www.apostolicnunciatureindia.com/Menu/ContactDirection/ContactUs.aspx, address
    for any suggestions. I give the address, having written myself and received a holding email by return. One can but try. It is heartbreaking.

  7. In his treatise, “On the Freedom of a Christian,” Martin Luther wrote,
    “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

    This seems to sum up the focus needed around the world.

  8. Just heart-breaking. I bow my head in shame at the little I am doing to help … and then remember Jesus suffering for us on the Cross, and somehow, deep down, I do believe that God is in charge.

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