After the chest tube was removed.

Part 4: The Vacuum Tube

Continued from Part 3: The First Surgery

I can’t describe the pain so I’ll explain the situation and leave it up to your imagination.

I woke up unable to breathe. More accurately: I could not inhale or exhale. If you aren’t up to date with what went on during my first surgery, basically a big rubber tube attached to a vacuum was surgically installed somewhere behind my lungs via an incision beneath my right arm pit. The tube was then sutured to my skin to prevent it from moving around. The vacuum sucked out air and juices that leaked into my chest cavity and collected it into a see-through container.

Have you ever played with a vacuum cleaner hose? At some point in time we have all done the “suction test” with a vacuum cleaner. When unsure of whether or not your vacuum is clogged or the filter is full you test it’s suction by placing your hand over the hose at varying heights until it latches on and sticks to your palm. This is the suction test.

The rubber vacuum tube going into my chest had decided to do a suction test.

Though I’m not sure what it actually stuck to, my guess is the hose clung to the back of my lungs due to my inability to fully breathe in or out. It felt like I had inhaled a cup of pins and needles that implanted themselves into the smallest crevices of my lungs. Every ounce of air that I breathed in would cause my lungs to expand; therefore, driving the pins and needles into my flesh. Likewise, every ounce of air that I allowed to escape would cause the tissues of my lungs to collapse around even MORE pins and needles.

I needed help. My hospital bed had one of those ultra-universal remotes that not only worked for the television but could also be used to adjust the bed, turn the lights on and off, and summon nurses. Problem was, my remote had slipped away somewhere I could not find without sitting fully upright in the bed and turning around to search for it. I could barely breathe laying still; the thought of sitting up and twisting my body around sounded torturous.

For over thirty minutes I laid there staring at the ceiling rapidly panting, my chest barely moving. I was dizzy from the lack of oxygen delivered by my shallow breaths. Panic was offset by the knowledge that eventually a nurse would walk in to do an hourly vitals check.

The door opened and a nurse walked in to do an hourly vitals check.

“The hose,” I choked, the words barely audible as I struggled to speak without exhaling or breathing in, “please, it’s stuck.” My voice was barely a whisper.

“What?” She was clearly not catching on.

“It. Hurts.” Tears started coming out of my eyes. The vacuum tube was actually connected to a syringe filled with thumbtacks. The plunger of the syringe squeezed more and more tacks into my lungs with each word that slipped out of my mouth. “Please…the…t-t-t-t.”   My chest got tighter as my lungs filled the razor-sharp tacks.

“What is it?” She asked again, this time looking over the monitors as if to find the answer there.


White-hot pain flooded my vision as the pins and needles in my chest exploded outward. A full breath of air had entered my lungs for the first time in over thirty minutes. My back arched in the bed and my whole body went rigid as I forced myself to hold in the breath. A small hiss of air steadily escaped between my teeth as my head started to throb.

A second nurse burst into the room. He immediately went to the left side of my bed where the three IV lines dangled out of my left arm. He deftly removed the cap from a syringe letting it fall to the floor and slipped the needle into one of the IV lines. Collapsing the syringe’s plunger almost too quickly I could feel my vein bulge with the increased volume.

“Hello Trevor, I’m back. Go ahead and let your breath out…it’s safe now.”

Ice trickled through my body and blossomed into a gentle flame as the Morphine took over my nervous system.

“I’ve been waiting for you…”

Later On:

I was able to talk to the surgeon that had installed the chest tube and asked him what was the cause of the pain. He admitted that he did not know, but it was probably just the tube sticking to some part of the inside of my body. Over the next two days, the tube got “stuck” three more times. However, it was never as bad as the first time and I learned how to temporary turn off the vacuum, which would relieve the sensation of needles building up in my chest until a nurse could administer another dose of Morphine.

Although this was an awful experience, I do not blame my surgeon or any of the medical staff for what happened. The vacuum tube did its job of removing leaked air and fluids from my chest cavity so that my lungs could properly inflate. The end of the vacuum tube latching on to something inside my body felt awful but it did not cause damage and is a minor consequence of being able to breathe.

After a few days, X-rays showed significant improvement with my chest cavity and lung tissue and the tube was removed. This was not very technical as it merely involved the surgeon clipping the sutures holding it in place and literally yanking it out of my body. An occlusive dressing was slapped over the opening and that was it. Now, the only remaining sign of the chest tube’s existence is a small slit-shaped scar beneath my armpit marking the location of the incision.

Vacuum tube inside my chest: check.   One less item for the ole bucket list.

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