Human lungs look like two hooded monks in pink billowy robes, bowing toward the heart that beats between them. If you could roll a pair out flat, the surface area of all those little bronchioles end to end would cover the area of a tennis court. A healthy set not only absorbs the oxygen our cells need to burn energy, it also rids the body of about 70 percent of its waste.
The lungs of an asthmatic—my lungs—are redder, more inflamed, and sometimes scarred. Dust, smoke, pollen, pollution, animal dander, stress, and infection can invite an attack. As a kid growing up in the suburbs of Salt Lake City and on my grandparents’ ranch in southern Idaho, all of the above triggered me. Especially animals. I couldn’t bear to be away from them, even though sneaking onto the bare back of my grandfather’s horse or dressing cats in doll clothes guaranteed a trip to the ER. I didn’t care; it was worth the price of admission.
I wish I could say the same thing now, about the price, because these days the ER is the last place any of us want to be. Living on a remote mesa between Colorado’s San Juan Range, to the east, and Utah’s red-rock deserts, to the west, where it’s possible for me to hop the fence and wander freely on millions of acres of public land in any direction, I am aware of my good fortune.
Here’s the catch: I can only get out on the land if I inhale a blast of albuterol. This is where my luck could run out. Since March, inhalers have been in short supply because many COVID-19 sufferers need them to ease their respiratory distress. I have only one in my possession. People with lungs like mine stand a greater chance of dying from the virus. These days I’m chewing on osha root, inhaling steam infused with tea tree oil, and feeling more vulnerable than I’d like.
It’s not dying of the disease that scares me, though. It’s living a life with more damaged lungs than I already have. Post-COVID lungs can be so permanently, thickly scarred that one might not ever breathe the same again. To be unable to saturate my organs and limbs with oxygen so my body can continue to ramble through rough country—up summits, over ridgelines, through slot canyons—it’s this thought that terrifies me.
I went on to trash my lungs despite all those childhood asthma attacks, where I was at times blue-lipped and whistling through an airway as narrow as a drinking straw while my mother blew through red lights to get me to the hospital. In high school, I smoked clove cigarettes and sucked on fat, greasy bongs. After dropping out of college, I dated a punk rocker who had me inhaling what I later learned was crack cocaine—I was too naive to know what it was and too depressed to ask. I just smoked whatever he lit.
Then, at age 21, I discovered rock climbing. I cleaned up my life, swapping sleazy bars and mosh pits for crags of every kind: granite, sandstone, limestone, quartzite. But I also spent a lot of time in climbing gyms, inhaling the dust that absconded from chalk bags. It was just my luck that indoor climbers can take in levels of particulates that exceed safety limits in the workplace.
It wasn’t long ago—just last summer—that I bemoaned the shape my lungs are in. But that was 2019, another lifetime it seems. My experience of not getting enough air is now trivial compared to that of a COVID patient or a Black man with a police officer’s knee on his neck. (Eric Garner. George Floyd. Manuel Ellis. Javier Ambler. Say their names.) The very act of breathing is in question these days.