Monday, May 9, 2016

"Gonna Fly Now"

     This past weekend held many "firsts" for me.  My first trip to the Philadelphia.  My first time flying alone.  And, the primary reason for this post, my first time flying since the transplant.



     I am not the sort of person who gets nervous about flying, or really someone who is a "worrier" in general.  But, on this occasion, I made an exception.  I wasn't panicked or anything, but the fact there is a standard "6 months before you can fly" waiting period after a lung transplant had me concerned.  I'm almost a year and nine months post transplant, and the doctors gave me the "all clear" to fly, but that didn't eliminate my nervousness.  Most of that feeling was tied to the actual flying and how my lungs would react, but some of it was because I would need to take all of my pills in a separate bag along with a doctor's note explaining why I needed two carry-on bags.  I prepared myself for confusion and complication to be the watchwords of the day.

     And they were!  For entirely different reasons.  I arrived with plenty of time to spare because I wasn't sure what, if any, kinds of delays I could expect traveling with these extra meds. I have flown with CF meds before, but the sheer volume of the ones I'm on now seemed like a potential reason for me being considered suspicious.  To avoid issues if I was flagged, my doctors suggested I take, in a separate carry-on, every pill bottle, rather than put the pills in the hour-by-hour day-by-day case.  As I always do, I listened to my doctors and took their advice.

     As I handed the first check-in guy my boarding pass, I held up the doctor's letter and started to ask, "Do I show you this..." when he cut me off and said, "Nope."

     Okay then.

     I did the requisite "remove your belt, shoes, everything from your pockets" thing and put my stuff on the belt. Since this was a short trip, I had all of my clothes in a backpack, and my meds in a bag that, fittingly, was given to me as "swag" from U of M hospital. Every one of my pill bottles fit nicely inside, and that went on the belt too.

     It's been a while since I've flown, so the body scanner experience was novel-- I struck the "bent arms over head" pose and moments later heard the woosh of the contraption, which resembles a revolving door minus the doors.

     I was flagged immediately by the security staff.  I thought that perhaps the scanner had detected the large piece of metal that now and forever holds my sternum together.  Wrong. The security officer said he was going to pat down my right side. He did so, felt my insulin pod, and asked what it was.  I explained that it was attached to my body with medical tape and that it gave me insulin.  I was grateful that he did not ask me to remove it.  Instead he asked me to follow him, stand by a machine, and rub my hands over my shirt in the area where the pod was.  Then, using a small piece of paper that looked like a tapered Band-Aid, he wiped my hands and placed the strip into a machine.  I asked him to explain this to me, since I'd never seen it before.  He said if there were explosive chemicals within the device, the process I just underwent would tell them that.  I feel like they should have actually wiped the insulin pod with the paper strip, but what do I know?  Of course, the insulin pod was determined to be benign and I was allowed to go get my things, which has passed the X-Ray inspection. 

     I realized at about this time that my doctor's letter wouldn't be needed because the bag of pills was of no concern to the security staff.  Those worries had been unfounded.  I thought perhaps a question about why I had two carry-ons despite not paying for the second (the first is free) could come up as I boarded the plane, but it didn't.  Maybe that's a Spirit Airlines thing, and another airline would have been more inquisitive.  I don't know.  I do know that a storm system between Detroit and Philadelphia delayed the flight for over two hours.  Thankfully, we were eventually allowed to take to the air.

     Once inside the plane, I walked to my randomly assigned middle seat, between two women who were also flying alone.  The doctors told me I had to wear a surgical mask on the plane, which, for some people would have been stressful because it draws attention and could make people think, "Oh, great, I'm flying with Zika McSicko."  This was not a concern for me, as I had resolved to explain  the reason why I was wearing a mask to the people I was seated next to.  I considered putting the mask on immediately upon boarding the plane, but decided it would be fine to put it on once I sat down-- that way I didn't walk by 15 rows of people who would then spend an hour and a half worrying that they were sharing a flight with Ebola Boy.  It was either that or wear a sandwich board that said, "No worries, I had a double lung transplant, sign up to be an organ donor today!"  Maybe I'll do that the next time I fly.

     I told my seatmates about why I was about to put a mask on.  I am always happy to talk about my transplant experience, so I welcomed the questions each of them had about why I needed the transplant, what Cystic Fibrosis is, and how much better my life has been like since the surgery.  We talked during the whole flight, which was great for me since it kept my mind off the question of "How will my lungs feel once we are in the air?"  I paid special attention to the part where the flight attendants described how the oxygen masks work, because I assumed that if I did have some sort of breathing issue once the cabin was pressurized and in-flight, the on-board oxygen system would come into play.  But, once the plane was in the air and I took a deep, clear breath, I didn't think about my lungs again until well after we'd landed.  Mission accomplished.

     I had a fabulous weekend with my friend Tim, who moved to Philadelphia to go to Temple University several years ago and never came back to live in the Mitten State, much to my disappointment.  Tim and I became friends when we attended camp at Chalfonte House when we were both 12 years old.  We became friends because we both loved The Simpsons.  That is as strong a foundation to build a lifelong friendship on as any-- this short clip from the show pretty much sums up our friendship.  Just replace "Nelson" with "Timmer."  He and I were mostly out of touch for many years, but over the past three, we reconnected, primarily due to our other shared love, the Red Wings.  To his credit, he's been a genuine fan almost his whole life, and has been following hockey for much longer than me, but he doesn't hold that against me. 

     After my late arrival Friday, on Saturday he gave me a proper tour of the city, stopping by most of the essential landmarks and eating some of the fare that Philly is famous for-- namely scrapple (everything but the squeal) at breakfast and a cheesteak for dinner.  We went halvesies so I could try one with Whiz and one with American cheese.  Both were delicious.  Later that night, we went to see Brain Regan, a comedian who is considered by those involved in the comedy scene to be one of the "best in the game."  He is rather unique in his comedic approach, especially in 2016-- Brain's comedy is inoffensive to all, politically neutral, and gets no saltier than an occasional "hell" or "damn."  I enjoyed his material when I'd see it on Comedy Central as a kid, but am nowhere near as big a fan as Tim.  I've never paid money to see any comedian perform, so this was another new experience for me.  Laughing for an hour and a half without coughing or needing to catch my breath-- just another amazing improvement in my post transplant life that I had yet to fully appreciate until this past weekend.  We also walked over seven miles as we made our way around the city.  Never at any point were my lungs tired.  I did not need to stop to rest, and I wasn't waylaid by a single coughing jag.  I was so happy.

     Perhaps the highlight of the whole trip (that didn't involve playing video games and laughing hysterically with Tim) was when he helped me make this video.  His cinematography work when I am facing the cityscape is as good or better than any professional could execute.  Please also appreciate how the theme from Rocky ties in perfectly with the "taking an airplane" aspect of this blog post.


     On Sunday, all there was left to do was go back home.  My flight left too early for my taste, but I had little choice.  At 9:30 I Uber'd to the airport, and again, security did not care about my meds or my Iron Man chest.  Again, the body scanner picked up my insulin pod, which I told them about in advance.  But when I stepped forward to have it patted down, the security person said that I needed to "hike up my pants" and go back through.  I looked over my shoulder-- the screen had two yellow boxes, one on my right hip, and another rectangle in a rather troubling location.  He said, "Go though again, otherwise it's a groin pat down."  The other person there agreed.  She said, "Yep, the groin."

     If you didn't already know this, it is an irrefutable fact that there is no other three word phrase more disconcerting than "groin pat down."  I pulled up my jeans, which were already resting where they usually do, and the machine scanned me again.

     I have never been so glad to see a digital outline of the human body with only one yellow square on it.  And, once again, my insulin pod proved to be Not a Bomb. 

     This flight was markedly different from my first one, despite initial similarities.  I was again seated between two women who were flying alone, but once I explained why I was putting on the surgical mask, each asked one question and then we didn't speak for the rest of the flight.  I tried to sleep, but the turbulence during the middle, and particularly the end of the flight, made it impossible-- for me.  The woman to my right was zonked out the whole time.  Meanwhile the woman to my left was slathering her sandwich with three packets of mustard at the mid-point of our trip.  I wrote some of this blog on my phone and prayed for a smooth landing after our bumpy descent.  Which is exactly what we got.

     The trip was over.  My lungs were tested in ways that they hadn't yet been, and they passed every time.  So much of this weekend would have been impossible, even in the three or four years before my transplant, and I feel so grateful and genuinely blessed (not hashtag blessed) to have every door and window of opportunity open to me.  It's a sentence that a few years ago I couldn't have imagined writing: in every aspect of life, my lungs have me "ready for takeoff."

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