“Hey Mills, are you okay?” My teammates gazed at me, concerned, Liz from the seat in front of me, Tori from across the aisle, Patricia seated behind me.
I nodded, trying to ease their minds. Two other teammates on the bus had bigger problems than I; I wasn’t the one they needed to be concerned about.
“Are you sure? “Liz persisted.
“I’ll be fine!” I said shortly. It was true; this shortness of breath, tightening of my lungs, heavy weight of fear over my heart had happened every soccer game that year, and it always went away.
I saw my teammates exchange glances, shrug, and turn their faces away from me. I leaned back in my seat, thankful to be free from observant eyes and ears. The bus engine rumbled, and the bus slowly pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road.
“Are we going to the hospital?” I heard a teammate ask from several seats ahead.
Our coach nodded.
“Because of Kat?” she asked.
“And Amanda,” he answered. Both girls were showing signs of concussions after the soccer game we had just finished: headaches, dizziness, slurred speech. Kneeling beside Kat in the grass during our team cooldown after the game, I had seen the blurry and confused look in her eyes. Compared to Kat, I was doing fine.
The streets flew past as we headed toward the hospital nearest the soccer field, in a town five hours from home. I stared out the window, trying to focus. Every breath took effort, more than I was used to. Since my asthma-like symptoms had begun a month before, I no longer took my breathing for granted, but this was worse than normal.
I was used to needing an inhaler during games. I was used to the short, choppy little breaths that came after a game ended, breaths that hurt my lungs and my chest, breaths that seemed to take all that I could possibly give. Kat had asthma too; I was used to her laughing reminders, “Breathe deep, Rache. Just breathe deep.”
I tried that now, tried to force my breathing to slow. I didn’t want to be obvious about my growing distress; Kat and Amanda needed more help than I did. But as I tried to fill my lungs, tried to take a big gulp of air, tried to slow my breath, I found that I couldn’t. I couldn’t even manage the short choppy breaths that were normal. Every swallow of air hurt more than I could imagine; each breath took more and more effort.
I fixed my eyes on the luggage racks above my head, not betraying my frantic thoughts with wild eyes. But the luggage rack wouldn’t stay still. It bounced back and forth, forward and backward. I wondered if the bus was falling over; surely a luggage rack couldn’t move that much by itself.
“Mills, are you sure you’re all right?” Kat’s twin, Liz, leaned over the seat again, her head obscuring my view of the cold metal rack I had been watching so closely. I shifted my eyes to the side and fixed them upon the steel bars once more.
“She’s really pale,” I heard Tori say.
“I am not,” I informed her. “I’m fine!”
“What did you say?” Tori asked, leaning close to me. Her eyes were scared.
So were mine. “I’m not pale,” I tried again.
Tori straightened, looking at Liz. “What is she trying to say?” Together, they turned toward the front of the bus. “Coach!”
The junior varsity coach, Kelly, was closest. He came down the aisle, to confer with them in whispers. Whispers were unnecessary; I could hear what they said. It didn’t matter, though, because none of it made sense. I wondered why they weren’t speaking English. I wondered what they were saying. I wondered if I was having a seizure. Were my hands shaking?
I held them up to examine them. They were. Why hadn’t I noticed that before? I shook them, but they were numb.
“What’s wrong with your hands?” Tori asked.
“They’re shaking!” I told her.
Come to think of it, so were my toes. And my feet. And my arms. What was going on?
“Breathe deep,” I heard Liz say. “You’re okay.”
“My hands are shaking!” I held them up to show her. Uncomprehending, she stared back at me with fear in her eyes.
“You’ll be okay,” she repeated, but she didn’t seem too convinced.
The bus stopped outside a hospital; teammates started to help Kat and Amanda off the bus. Liz draped her sister’s arm over her shoulder and helped her slowly off the bus and up to the ER entrance. Others did the same with Amanda Tye. One of our co-captains, Amanda, came back to kneel next to me. “Mills, are you okay?”
I held up a finger, signaling that she should wait a minute. I didn’t even have the breath to talk.
She was unconvinced. “Do you need to go too?”
I shook my head vigorously. “I’ll be okay in a few minutes.”
Amanda saw my head barely swing from one side to the other and my mouth open as though I was trying to speak.
“Her lips are turning blue,” said Tori, frightened.
“Coach!” Amanda called.
Kelly hurried down the aisle again. “Can you help her?” he asked Amanda. She nodded.
“Come on, Rachel, stand up.” She grabbed my arms; I couldn’t feel it. Slowly, she propelled me to a standing position and guided me down the aisle. I felt frightened, worried, upset, but mostly ridiculous. One of my friends, a freshman who doesn’t cry easily, was sobbing into her seatmate’s shoulder. I stopped next to her; she gazed at me with frightened eyes. The other girls reached out to touch my hands or arms as I passed, trying to convey strength with their touch. I couldn’t tell that anyone was touching me. My hands and arms were numb up to my shoulders; even my lips and cheeks were starting to disappear.
I don’t know how long that walk down the aisle took, much less the long trek to the hospital door. There is a fine line between conscious and aware; I was by no means unconscious, but I remember little about that time.
Random images will stay in my memory forever: a wildly careening wheelchair coming to halt in front of me. Liz and Amanda helping me sit down gently. The rush of cool air inside the hospital doors that was so different from the heat outside. Liz trying to take my picture with her cell phone in the waiting room as I pressed an oxygen mask to my face and made her stop. The hospital nurse trying to get me to open my eyes, assuring me that nothing was wrong with them.
I didn’t believe her.
Ironically, logically, the hospital staff deemed me the most vital case. Logical because I couldn’t breathe. Ironic because the other two were later diagnosed with concussions and I with a simple panic attack. Nobody blamed me, not during the long hours that we sat first in the waiting room and then in a private room, waiting for my numb fingers, toes, lips, cheeks, arms, and legs to regain feeling bit by tingly bit, waiting for Kat’s test results to come back, waiting for the doctor to sign us out. Their words were solely comforting and kind as we sat in a Wal Mart parking lot for another four hours waiting for a bus driver to come because our driver had worked the maximum amount of hours that day. And nobody snapped at me on the way home or when we finally arrived at 5:30 on Sunday morning, a full 23 hours after we left on Saturday.
In the weeks that followed, many heard about our long soccer trip and they heard that I was one of the three in the hospital. “What happened to you?” they ask curiously.
“Asthma attack,” I reply. I know that's not the whole truth, but I am too ashamed to tell the rest. A panic attack sounds like something that happens to people who are weak; I don't want to be weak.
I know nobody blames me. I know that I could not have controlled the panic attack, nor could I have prevented it, nor did I truly cause it. I know these things, but I am ashamed all the same. They told me later that my oxygen levels were barely below normal; my breathing was in no danger at all. As usual, it had calmed down five or ten minutes after the game ended and returned to normal. But the combination of adrenaline and fear sent me spiraling into a panic attack I’ll never forget. An attack that I hope to never repeat.