15 years

It was around 2am on Sunday 3rd October 2004. I was sat up in bed struggling to breathe when I decided lying down would be a good idea. That's when I stopped breathing...

The days preceding this, I'd been getting out of breath after short walks. I live in Yorkshire so there are plenty of hills. I chalked the breathlessness up to a combination of the hills and my smoking being the cause. I didn't feel ill otherwise, so I thought nothing of it. I'd just turned 19 so I figured nothing serious could be wrong.

Saturday night, I turned up at the local pub to work behind the bar, as I did most nights at the time. Saturdays were generally pretty busy so I was constantly moving about, up and down the cellar steps bringing crates to refill the fridge, filling pint after pint. The people I worked with noticed I was sweating quite a bit.

"Are you ok?"

"Yeah, just busy and getting quite hot in here tonight"

I honestly didn't feel it was anything other than the fact that I was busy. I wasn't getting short of breath while working so it seemed logical.

A couple more hours and the breathlessness started to kick-in.

"I'm fine, honestly..."

Eventually, the landlady stopped believing me and told me to grab a drink and sit down to see if it helped.

I had a break, started to feel better so went back to work. Almost immediately, the sweating started up as did the short breaths. They sent me home and told me to call an ambulance if I felt any worse.

So, home is where I went. I got myself into bed and sat up for a while to see if a bit of rest would help. It was late so I thought it might be worth just trying to get some sleep so I laid down.

I couldn't breathe. Physically, I was incapable of taking a breath. Like when holding your breath under water for too long, my body was convulsing trying hard to take a breath but it couldn't.

I somehow managed to get myself sat up once again and... a breath. Then another. Then another.

At this point, I thought two things: "Ok, so don't lie down at all" and "I'm in serious trouble. Dial 999".

I made my way downstairs and called 999 from the landline (remember those?) and waited for the ambulance.

My older brother was in the house but he had to be up early to start work that day so I decided to leave him to sleep. Instead, I thought I'd leave him a note to tell him where I was. Given my condition, I paid little attention to the panic it might have caused, I just scrawled it as the ambulance arrived.

"Can't breathe. Gone to hospital. Sam"

The paramedics arrived and sat me in the ambulance. They immediately strapped on a face mask hooked up to a tank of oxygen to try to help me before heading to A&E.

Once at the hospital, I was fast-tracked straight to seeing a doctor which, anyone who has spent any time in A&E will know, effectively means "this shit is serious".

Having said that, I was sat for quite some time on my own sucking in as much oxygen as I could.

Eventually, I was taken for an x-ray so they could start to figure out what the hell was wrong with me.

My x-ray from that night. Those two white blobs hugging close to my spine... those are my lungs.

What you're seeing there are two collapsed lungs - Simultaneous Bilateral Spontaneous Pneumothorax. As far as I understand it, there was air or fluid in my rib cage preventing my lungs from inflating. There be more too it than that but I'm not a doctor ;)

According to one report I found online, 1 in 100,000 can suffer from a spontaneous collapsed lung but apparently only "1.3% of these cases can be bilateral (both lungs at once)", so pretty rare.

My condition was fairly progressed too, the doctor said had I left it a few more hours, it would have killed me.

Once they knew what they were dealing with, I was whisked into another room where they gave me some local anesthetic on either side of my chest, then plunged tubes into my chest.

The breath I took was unlike any breath I recall taking, followed quite literally by a sigh of relief. I've often imagined it must be a similar sensation to a baby taking their first breath.

I was out of trouble.

The next few days was spent in hospital with a small drain sticking out of each side of my chest with stuff getting drained from my chest. Only it didn't quite do the trick. I still had collapsed lungs.

I was shipped off to another hospital where I had to undergo surgery where they literally opened me up. I've got a scar running from where my collar bones meet below my neck, right down to my diaphram.

When I woke up, I was pretty mashed on painkillers but I remember not being able to sit up (for obvious reasons) and had the two small drains replaced with four much bigger ones.

I spent another few days being completed bed-ridden until the day the drains came out. I recall thinking they'd need to put me under again to do this but nope. Wide awake, having tubes pulled out then just having to fight the shock. Not at all pleasant.

Eventually, I made it home. I had a check-up with the surgeon the following week. I went along feeling fine, had an x-ray, walked into the surgeon's office and he delivered news I didn't want to hear:

"Your left lung still has a pneumothorax"

Off back to the hospital I went. I had surgery again, this time only key-hole but I was still in hospital again for about a week.

I made it home soon after with another check-up booked in with the surgeon.

Again, I went to the check-up feeling fine and confident I was done with the hospital visits.


The left lung, again, had collapsed.

Back to the hospital again. By this point, I'd got to know the ward staff pretty well so this third visit was like going back to see friends but I was still pretty stalled by the whole experience. I'd had enough of being attached to things. I'd had enough of tubes sticking out of my chest.

This third visit saw me getting just a small drain put into my left side. The doctors didn't think it was necessary for me to stay in the hospital so the drain was hooked up to a bag and on I went. Thinking back now, it was pretty grim having to walk around with a bag of lung juice but as I spent most of my time sitting watching films, it wasn't so bad.

I returned to the surgeon for a check-up once again. The drain was left in for the x-ray "just in case" and I felt pretty pessimistic. So much so, I'd brought my laptop and a bunch of DVDs in preparation for another stay in hospital.

To my relief, the surgeon gave me the all clear. He removed the drain and sent me on my way. I can't quite recall whether I ever went back to him for check-ups or just my regular GP. Anyway, it was over.

So that's it, dear reader. That's the story of how I nearly died aged 19.