Inside the Glass Box

I’ve been coughing this way for a long time. I can’t remember the first time and never got in the habit of numbering them. I think they add a certain gusto to a fading conversation, but few agree.

In 2001, a Northwest pulmonary specialist said I had asthma, and tools of the trade were doled out. My inhalator did little if nothing, but I used it for a year.

Next came allergy pills of every creed. And a night-time cough syrup that put me to sleep. Still, I coughed and collected complaints.

Fellow diners moved their chairs away from me, even after I explained that I had a non-infectious ailment. My sonic booms scared small children. Somebody suggested TB, and then disappeared.

My doctor smiled and initialed an order good for one hour in the glass box. Picture a phone booth without a phone or telephone book, or any graffiti. Replace the folding door with a single-hinged door and that’s where I burrowed away for sixty minutes.

Just a theory, but I think that the proliferation of cell phones drove the telephone booth manufacturers close to extinction. A marketing genius stepped in and found a profitable way to convert unused booths and help asthma sufferers in one swoop. I told the respiratory technician, and smiled a second or two longer than I should have.

“I have a feeling that you’re a little anxious about being in the box.”

“Nervous?” I responded, surveying the inside of the renovated phone booth. “Not one bit. And before we begin this adventure …”

“I’m listening – that’s what I do best,” he told me, turning to the door to wave to someone.

“Will he be joining me?” I asked.

“No, his son just got into a practice in Arizona.” He mimicked a golf stroke. “Anesthesiology – doesn’t get any better. He starts everything up, takes a nap, and if there’s a problem, he’s the hero. Lucky guy. My daughter’s finishing med school in June and my son starts engineering school, in a year.”

“What I was about to say is that I know I don’t have asthma. Where in Arizona? My son went to debate camp there, last summer.”

“Let’s call it a day. You can go home and debate with your son and I’ll enjoy a couple of rounds.”

“No, I have a point to make. And if I’m right, I shouldn’t have to pay for this visit.”

“You can take that one up with accounting. Now, let me tell you what you’re going to be doing in the box. First, sit down. Perfect. You can follow directions. Next, put the mask over your mouth. Let me show you.”

He bent around from what looked a bit like a shortwave radio with a monitor and coaxed me to pull the mask down further to cover my lips. “Otherwise, this test is worthless.”

“It’s already worthless. I don’t have asthma. Have you heard me wheeze once?”

“Whatever you say. When I tell you to breathe in, I want you to take in as much air as you possibly can. Try it.”

“Breathing air?  I’ve got it mastered… Like this?”

“You’re leaking – better. Perfect. Now, this time I’ll ask you to breathe in and when I give you the hand signal, let all the air rush out.”

I did this several times, watching the short wave monitor squirm like a lie detector test. Then, something new – he squirted an asthma medication deeply into my nostrils. And we started again. More breathing. He looked at the monitor and suppressed a smile.

“I’ve got what I need,” he told me.

“What I want to know…”

“I know just what you want to know, but that’s between you and your doctor.” He turned off the monitor and closed the door to the breathing suite.

“Don’t make me wait. I couldn’t get an appointment for six weeks. I’m not. I know I’m not.”

“I can’t,“ he said, looking away from me. “I can’t tell you that your breaths were almost identical. Understand what I can’t tell you!”

Weeks later, my doctor had to see her cardiologist, but her nurse told me I was right, and signed my parking ticket. I wasn’t what I knew I wasn’t — a lesson validated in the glass box.

My cough – it comes and goes. But never far from home.