I learned about air hunger when my 15- year-old daughter, Ana, was dying. She had an extremely rare cancer called inflammatory myofibroblastic tumor (IMT) which can occur in people of all ages, but is most prevalent in adolescents. IMT usually presents as benign. Ana’s was malignant and very aggressive.
Ana had been living with cancer for four years when her disease finally outran her treatment. It was like a snowball rolling down a steep slope, building momentum until it got too big to slow down. In September 2016, the month Ana started tenth grade, she was officially admitted to a local hospice program.
In retrospect, she was already showing signs of air hunger at that time, even though she looked like this:
Ana died six months after the above photo was taken. Though she looks healthy, she was experiencing shortness of breath, weakness, and intense fatigue which got rapidly worse as her cancer progressed.
What does any of this have to do with wearing masks? Dyspnea, the clinical term for shortness of breath, is a hallmark symptom of COVID-19. Another name for dyspnea is air hunger. Describing “dyspnea” as shortness of breath fails to communicate how terrifying and debilitating it is.
Full disclosure: I’m not a medical professional and I’ve personally never experienced air hunger associated with severe illness. I did, however, watch my child experience it, so I have some familiarity with how absolutely horrendous a symptom this is.
Dyspnea, when it’s associated with severe disease (as opposed to, say, thirty minutes of intense cardio), is absolutely terrifying.
Watching my daughter go through this during the final months of her life was one of the most traumatic things I’ve ever experienced. To say I have PTSD from living this nightmare is an understatement.
As the virus surges through America and hospitals across the country fill up with COVID-19 patients, I can’t stop thinking about the last, terrible weeks of Ana’s life when the air hunger she experienced grew so bad she could barely speak.
For Ana, the only way to mitigate this terrible symptom was to give her a cocktail of opioids and anti-anxiety meds which effectively rendered her unconscious. It’s as bad as it sounds (actually, it’s probably way worse than it sounds). I wouldn’t wish air hunger on anyone.
I wear a mask so that you, your friends, and your family don’t have to experience this grim symptom, not because I’m trying to make a political statement.
I wear a mask because I’m legitimately terrified — all the time — that I’m going to catch this thing or someone I love is going to catch it.
I wear a mask because I know what it looks like when someone you love slowly suffocates.
Wearing a mask is an effective way to slow the spread of the virus. This is not the opinion of a naive libtard. This is a fucking fact. In a meta-analysis published by The Lancet on June 1st, 2020, the use of face masks — combined with physical distancing of 3 feet or more — resulted in a large reduction in the risk of infection.
Certain masks are better than others. N95 respirators are the most effective masks to keep healthcare workers protected when treating COVID-19 patients, even more so than surgical masks. (So, leave the N95 masks for the people on the front lines.)
For the average person, multi-layer reusable cloth masks that fit well and are water-resistant (according The Lancet study), are more protective than single-layer masks. At this point, these masks are not hard to come by. You can even make them yourself.
Masks are readily available. They’ve been proven to be effective at stopping the spread of the virus. They’re a simple, noninvasive way to make you and those you love safer. So, why wouldn’t you wear one when you’re out in public?
Still not convinced? Let’s take a deeper dive into the murky abyss of air hunger.
As I’ve already established, Ana didn’t die from COVID-19. Her air hunger was caused by tumors in her lungs. She also had tumors in her abdomen, pelvis, and bowels, but the lung tumors were the worst.
I used to be able to list the biggest ones by the exact number of centimeters and their position within her lungs. Thankfully, I don’t remember those painful details anymore.
What do I remember?
I remember how she struggled for breath. I remember how I could see her heart, deprived of oxygen, pounding furiously in her chest. I remember the look of terror on her face when she couldn’t catch her breath. I remember the time when she began to cough, a deep barking sound that resonated through her emaciated body, and how she couldn’t stop coughing.
I remember scrambling for the medication, texting the palliative care physician, desperately holding a fan up to her face so that she could feel the air hit her nose and mouth, hooking up the supplemental oxygen and putting it over her nose and mouth as she sat bolt upright in bed…gasping and coughing and gasping some more.
She kept the fan beside her face right up until she died. She kept a full water bottle and a cup of ice within arm’s reach too because her mind registered the lack of air as a deep, unquenchable thirst.
I still can’t walk by a fan without thinking of the one Ana held up to her nose until she was too weak to hold anything anymore.
Do you want to die like that? Do you want someone you love to die like that? No? Wear a damn mask.
If I sound brutal, it’s because air hunger is brutal and I desperately want to save you from experiencing it. I also want to save myself, my family, and my friends.
I have one final — equally brutal — point to make. My husband and I were with Ana until the very last breath. We held her hand. We held that fan up to her face. As her parents, we were incredibly in tune with what she needed in terms of medication and comfort. She did not die alone. At the very least, we were able to give her that small bit of comfort.
But COVID-19 often means a chaotic and lonely death. Yes, people are admitted to the ICU and cared for by medical personnel, but there are many (many) stories of people dying alone in the hospital, without family in the room with them. There are also people dying alone in their own homes or in nursing homes.
To die alone is the worst kind of death I can imagine. After Ana died, I hoped (feverishly, selfishly) that I would die before anyone else in my family for two reasons — I dreaded experiencing another loss and I didn’t want to die alone. I have a tiny family. It is far too easy for me to imagine outliving everyone, even my younger daughter, and exiting this world completely alone.
COVID-19 is making my two deepest fears a reality for so many people — they are experiencing air hunger and they are dying alone. When I see politicians and public health officials downplaying the use of masks and ignoring the importance of social distancing by, say, reopening their state far too soon, I want to scream! Don’t they understand that they’re condemning people to a terrible, lonely death?
We don’t have to die this way. We already have the tools we need to reduce the spread of the virus and save countless lives.
It has nothing to do with politics and talking points. It’s about empathy and compassion (and a little common sense). Countries where mask wearing was quickly adopted and worn by the majority of the population saw death rates 100 times lower than projected.
The mask you put on your face can prevent someone else from experiencing air hunger. It can prevent them from dying alone in a hospital, nursing home, or in their own bed. The mask I put on my face can spare you from the this fate too.
So, now that you know all of this, why the hell wouldn’t you wear a mask?