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  • It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and something didn’t feel quite right. I opened my eyes and rolled off my roommate's undersized couch, taking a peek out of our apartment's living room window to estimate the time. A little after sunrise. Great. Like so many times before, I had fallen (and stayed) asleep on the living room couch while doing schoolwork.

    I quickly got ready and within a few minutes was out the door, figuring that I ought to get over to the library to pick up my work where I left off. As I rode my bike along my familiar route between my adjacent-to-campus neighborhood and the Fine Arts Library, I noticed that my soreness from sleeping on the couch hadn’t really subsided. Not only that: it was getting worse. In 22 years up to this point, I hadn’t ever experienced significant chest pain to speak of. This bout of odd sensation had caught me off guard. It wasn’t actually painful so much as it was uncomfortable. My chest felt like someone had stuck a long balloon down my trachea and begun blowing — it was like a pressure from within. And something inside the left part of my chest felt...loose?

    I set about my work in the library, and I noticed that, if I leaned forward a bit, the feeling would subside. In my next class — a fine arts elective consisting of me and ten classmates — our teacher noticed me shifting around uncomfortably in my seat: “You okay, Matt?” I assured him I was fine.

    By 12:30, I was walking into my next class, a little worried, because in this one — social dance, a PE credit in Anna Hiss Gym — I wouldn’t be sitting. I decided it was time for a visit to the university health services center, walked up to our instructor, and explained that I’m having some chest pain and I think it’s a little abnormal and would you mind if left class to go over to the clinic?

    “Umm, yeah, I think you should definitely do that. Please go now.”

    So I walked myself across the street, rather put off that treating this untimely malady was interrupting my busy day.

    “Next in line, please,” called the health services receptionist from behind the counter.

    “Hi, umm, I’m having a little chest pain today. It’s sort out of the ordinary for me, so I figured I’d come in just to make sure nothing’s seriously wrong.”

    A few short minutes later, I was explaining the same story to a nurse who would ultimately make the decision on whether I should stay and be seen by a doctor as soon as possible, come back for an appointment later on, or just leave and go take care of myself (if the condition wasn’t serious). I hadn’t gotten far past “abnormal chest pain” before...

    “We’ll need to check you into Urgent Care. Chest pain can be very serious, so the first order of business is to make sure there’s nothing wrong with your heart.”

    So the fun began. One echocardiogram and two x-rays later, Dr. Melinda McMichael walked in and informed me that my heart, so it turned out, was perfectly fine.

    “That’s the good news,” she explained. “But, it seems you’ve had a spontaneous pneumothorax. Your lung has collapsed completely.”

    This, I gradually learned, meant that there was a ton of air inside my chest, but outside my lung. Due to the difference in pressure, my lung had literally collapsed in on itself, and because there was a small hole in it, the problem was getting worse. Researchers don’t know what causes this spontaneous condition; however, what they do know is that it is most commonly seen in young men who are tall, thin, and in otherwise perfect health — making me the ideal candidate. Apparently, being active and in shape is less healthy than I had heretofore believed.

    “Oh. So how long is it going to take to heal?” I asked Dr. McMichael. My condition didn’t feel all that serious, so I was under the impression that it wasn’t. Feelings, though, are often deceiving.

    “This condition doesn’t heal on its own, I’m afraid. Your lung needs to be ventilated, so you’ll have to go to the emergency room.”

    “The emergency room?! I’m kind of busy today. Do you think it will take long?”

    “About three days or so.”

    THREE DAYS?! I retorted in my head. Who has that kind of time at this point in the semester? Granted, we were about to be on Thanksgiving break, but all the more important: UT would be playing its annual football game against Texas A&M in two days’ time, and I didn’t intend to miss it.

    “Keep in mind that this is a life-threatening condition, Matt. I think it’ll be worth the time spent. Do you know anyone who can give you a ride to the hospital?”

    “Well, I rode my bike here, so I’ll probably just head over there myself.” I was half joking. Dr. McMichael laughed.

    “I don’t think so,” she replied, not jokingly in the slightest. “See if you can find a friend to drive you over there. Otherwise I’m calling you a cab.”

    She exited, leaving me there in the exam room alone. I pulled out my phone to start making some calls...

    Dad first. (“Whoa, that sounds serious. You’re okay? … Good. … Yes, find out which hospital they recommend and get there as soon as possible. … Call me if you can once you’re there.”)

    Mom next. She’s been a registered nurse for years, which mitigated the freakout. (“What?! Oh my goodness! … Okay, well I’m glad you seem to be all right. I’m going to get in the car and drive down there. … No Matt, don’t worry about it. It’s a mom thing. I wouldn’t feel good about just staying here.”)

    I called around to a few friends to inquire about getting a ride, but at 2:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, students are generally on campus, and even if they’re not in class, chances are good that they don’t have a car parked nearby. Several calls, several voicemail greetings. In light of this, I figured it might be an appropriate time to bother Marsha Miller. Marsha works for the university as the official staff photographer, and I had gotten to know her earlier in the year while working as a news and social media intern in the office next to hers. In the months afterward, she quickly became a trusted mentor and friend.

    “Hey Marsha, it’s Matt. Listen, I’m so sorry to bother you in the middle of the workday like this, but I’m wondering if you could do me a favor … I’m over here at UHS because one of my lungs collapsed, and I’m, uhh, wondering if you might be able to, umm, give me a ride to the hospital.”

    Marsha doesn’t have children of her own, but you wouldn’t know it from her motherly reaction to this news. (“A collapsed lung?! Oh my God, can you breathe?! How are you not in serious pain? … Yes, yes, I’ll be right there! Hang on!”)

    In walked Dr. McMichael. “I called Seton Hospital and they’re expecting you.” She had graciously arranged for Dr. Bill Kessler, one of the area’s best pulmonary physicians, to take care of me.

    A few short minutes later, Marsha burst in. To her surprise, I was still standing up, pacing the exam room, talking on the phone with my dad about insurance logistics, and interspersing a few laughs about this most uncanny situation. Seeing me feeling all right eased her anxiety. With one final goodbye and thank you, we were on our way Seton.


    “Hi, my name is Matthew Portillo,” I said to the emergency room receptionist. “I was sent here from UT health services. My lung is, umm, collapsed.”

    “Yes, we heard,” she replied. “Glad you seem to be feeling all right.” She put a form in front of me and gave me a wristband. “Please read, sign, and place the band on your wrist. Then have a seat in the wheelchair behind you so that we can take you back.”

    I didn’t think I was in bad enough shape yet to need a wheelchair. Was that really necessary?

    “Yes, we’d prefer to have the staff take you back there.” Apparently, the matter was settled.

    I boarded my hospital vessel, and Marsha walked in from parking the car. I noticed she had her small camera, and was suddenly even more grateful that she had elected to stay with me. Having a professional photographer on hand would surely make the experience more memorable. “You’re going to document this, right?” I inquired. “Okay, good.”

    As they wheeled me toward my next examination room, I couldn’t help but reflect on the irony of this. I was a 22-year-old in otherwise perfect health. The lives of millions of other people in the world could have been drastically improved with this wheelchair I had, but didn’t need.

    In stark contrast to the sick and injured people I rolled past, I was the arrogant kid who was, in a way, looking forward to his upcoming battle royale vs. the emergency room. No need to take it seriously — I knew full well that I wasn’t going to die. This was a chance to demonstrate my resilience. Three days to recover? Watch me do it in two!


    I arrived in the exam room and met Dr. Kessler, who informed me of my two options: 1) Undergo the standard ventilation procedure for a first-time collapsed lung. No general anesthesia. A quicker recovery. But a 40-percent chance of recurrence in my lifetime. 2) Undergo a full surgery under general anesthesia. Hang out at Seton over the course of a longer recovery. But the likelihood of recurrence would be virtually nil, which would provide some nice peace of mind if I were ever to travel abroad for any extended period of time.

    I called both my parents again, asking what I should do. They’re divorced and rarely do they seem to agree on anything. That they both suggested that I elect Option 1 was enough to make me do so.

    For a moment, I was alone in the exam room. Outside, I overheard a doctor on the phone. “No, I can’t … She’s 88 years old, and lives alone, except for her nephew who’s never around … I can’t discharge her right now.” For a moment, my youthful arrogance was interrupted. That short conversation ran through my head over and over again. A sort of significance weighed on me.

    The nurses and hospital staff came back in and began to prepare the room — and me — for the procedure. I encouraged Marsha to continue taking pictures, and I also borrowed her laptop. As instruments and machines were prepared around me, I quickly drafted an email to my peers in UT’s student government organization, explaining why I wouldn’t be at their meeting that evening, and apologizing for any inconvenience it caused. I finished, hit “send,” and took the IV in my hand that would sedate me into happy oblivion.

    Of course, I have almost no recollection of what happened over the next several minutes. I woke up with a tube protruding from between my ribs, out of the left side of my chest. Marsha later described the sound of the chest tube going in — or rather, the massive amount of misplaced air rushing out. I was attached to a suction machine, and remained so for about the next 12 hours so that my lung could stay inflated. As I slowly came back into normal consciousness, I was transported upstairs to my own hospital room, where Marsha stayed with me until my mom arrived a few hours later.

    As I had willed, I recovered faster than expected. On day 2, I was able to walk around the halls with the friends who visited me, and on the morning of day 3, an unfamiliar doctor walked into my room and asked me, to my surprise, if I was ready have the chest tube out and be on my way home.

    “Sure! does this happen?” He was already undoing my dressing and removing the few stitches that had helped secure the tube in my chest cavity. I took a few quick pictures.

    “All righty, let’s get this thing out,” he said abruptly. “On the count of three, take a breath in.”

    “Wait, what?! You mean—”


    “Whoa, you’re just pulling it out?!”


    I stopped talking and took the breath.


    With a single yank, it was out. I sat there, heart pounding, and panting. I gazed at the long, bloodied glass tube that had been inside me for two days.

    “Oh … whoa...” It took me a few minutes to catch my breath. The doc disposed of the tube and left as quickly as he had arrived.

    Within an hour, I was in mom’s car, headed back to my apartment. I had arrived at Seton and been discharged within less than 48 hours.


    That night, Mom and I went to the football game. She’s not one for football, but she decided to join me nonetheless. “I know you’ll go anyway. Figure I may as well be with you, just in case,” she said, rolling her eyes.

    Oddly enough, attending that freezing cold game and watching the Longhorns lose miserably to the Aggies marked a mission accomplished for me. I was arrogant going in, and that arrogance was only edified by the time I got out. In my 22-year-old mind, I never came face to face with my own mortality. I won a battle against it.
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