Exercise-o-phobia, Lungs, and the Womb

I haven’t exercised in several years.  Really, the only time I run these days is when someone is literally dying.  I run to Code Blues in the hospital.  I run to stat messages on my 1980’s style pager.  And that’s about it.

It’s shameful.  I’m a physician who routinely counsels children and adults about the benefits of exercise and the importance of maintaining a “healthy lifestyle”.  Consequently, I often feel like a hypocrite because I grouse and mutter and make excuses when my wife encourages me to do something active.  It’s ironic because most people who see and know me shake their heads and say that I should gain several pounds.

The fact is that I’ve have had several lung collapses, called spontaneous pneumothoraxes, which are events that occur most commonly in thin men.  They are scary, traumatic things: moments that become minutes of breathlessness and lightheadedness followed by panic and trips to the ER.  It happened while I was a medical student, while I was on a retreat with other interns in residency, while I was working in an ICU.  In one case I dragged myself through the hospital at the end of a shift to the ER.  It was unpredictable and frightening, and I was fortunate to have corrective surgeries.  But even though I was assured by multiple physicians and surgeons that life could return to normal, that I shouldn’t have to worry or limit myself, I would periodically find myself feeling short of breath and wonder whether I would ever be able to feel secure and normal again.

So I found myself avoiding things that could theoretically trigger an event, like lifting heavy things and flying and swimming and really any form of exercise.  I made up excuses and no one looking at me would figure out I had exercise-o-phobia.  No one looking at the self-assured and confident physician that is me would figure out that I always keep my phone near me, that I keep an emergency decompression needle for my chest at the bedside, that I avoid rural areas far from medical support, that there are nights when I lie down and worry if I will ever wake up.

But I think I’m ready to change.  I don’t know how it happened, except that maybe it just took time.  I met my lovely wife through a road trip after I grounded myself from flying.  There have been enough chest x-rays that were normal.  I’ve witnessed a good bit of scary stuff, both for myself and vicariously through the lives of my patients… more than most thirtysomethings will ever know.  I think I’ve come to trust a little more in God’s sovereignty and his promise that every day of my life has been meticulously planned since before time began, before one of them came to be.

That is how I would like to feel about the urban life, but I don’t quite yet.  In a recent post, I talked about how overwhelmed my wife and I felt after only a few months living together in a violent neighborhood:

We had hardly been married three months and yet had already been exposed to an extreme range of other emotions. Not only were we still adjusting to living together as newlyweds, we were doing so in an environment that felt more like a battlefield than anything else. We lived in a dysfunctional row home located in an epicenter of urban violence. One man was shot in the chest less than fifty feet away from our front door; the event was so close that I was applying first aid before most of the police had even arrived at the scene. I was regularly sending some neighbors to the hospital for general medical conditions even as I tried to refer others to drug rehab. Hardly a month earlier, someone had broken into our house. The next day, even as we tried to cope and secure the house, someone broke in again. Simple tasks of married life became draining and difficult; we had mold in the basement, no access to laundry, and little heat in our rooms to brace us for the coming winter. Many of our friends and allies in the neighborhood had either betrayed us, fallen ill, or moved. It mattered little that there were other like-minded Christians living only a few blocks away; to us, it might as well have been the other side of the city since we felt too unsafe to walk outdoors most days. In relocating, my wife had also moved away from her family, church, and many friends. It felt as if many of our supports were eroding swiftly.

And now we were expecting…

So we moved out.  We had only lived together there for six months, and yet we experienced more trauma than many do in years worth of time.  Life there had begun to change us in ways that made us more fearful, mistrustful, and often despairing.  It was much more difficult than we thought it would be, and there are so many things that continue to trigger moments of panic in me still: walking alone in the street, loud noises, even being far from my wife.  I would say that such fears are unfounded except that I have seen the extremes of many variations in the hospital and in our old neighborhood: gunshot wounds, rape victims, PTSD, miscarriages & fetal anomalies, codes, arrests (of multiple types).  Despite a long history of telling ourselves the theological truths about loving neighbors and loving neighborhoods and advocating for justice and believing in God’s affection and protection, I sit here and try write as images and stories of suffering and death intermittently paralyze me.

And I feel ashamed.  I can’t quite articulate why and I have yet to see exactly how God will be faithful.  But I write this to remind myself that he has been and is and always will be.  Even as I nestle with my wife and feel the kicking and life of our soon-to-be-born child in the womb, I must exercise this faith now, this belief we will teach him that God loves him and knows him and leads him… just as He does for us.

Psalm 139

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
    all the days ordained for me were written in your book
    before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts,[a] God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
    they would outnumber the grains of sand—
    when I awake, I am still with you.

If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
    Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!
They speak of you with evil intent;
    your adversaries misuse your name.
Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
    and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
I have nothing but hatred for them;
    I count them my enemies.
Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.


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