Project Mercury

The next thing I remember is lying on my side, on the floor of the Tangaroa, under a mountain of blankets, shivering. My body had kicked into overdrive in a desperate effort to warm up. Shivering is absolutely EXHAUSTING. It is, without question, a full-body workout and it seemed to take forever to stop. “I did it. I did it.” I kept saying to Joe. “Yes, yes you did” he replied. “Yes, you did.”

I have little recollection of the next few hours...

Back at the motel, I called my parents. Joe had kept them updated by phone throughout the first part of my swim while they anxiously tracked my entire swim live, via the GPS SPOT tracker, on my Dad’s computer. But for the last few hours the conditions were far too treacherous for Joe to make any phone calls. My parents were left having to painstakingly watch the little orange flags appear every 10 minutes on the Google map indicating my progress across Cook Strait. It took at least another 2 hours to reach the harbor, so it wasn’t until 7pm when they heard the “official” news.

I burst into tears as soon as I heard my Dad answer the phone. “I did it, Dad, I did it.” The words my Dad uttered back will stay with me forever. I couldn’t stop crying. My Mum spoke. And again I cried. And I will never forget what she said. But as I cried, my lungs again began to rattle. I was having major difficulty breathing. And I started to panic.

“I can’t breathe, Joe… I can’t breathe.” The words struggled from my chest. “I think I need to go to the hospital.”

Don’t ask me why, but it was very important for me to shower before going to the hospital. Yes, shower. I insisted. And, looking back, it probably wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had. Hunched over in the shower, unable to take a full breath, I kept gasping for air. Adding insult to injury, I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything for hours and my body felt extremely depleted and weak. It reminded me of when I tried to walk for the first time after undergoing the first of many surgeries on my leg. I felt like I had just woken up from general anesthesia. It was awful.

Unable to move my arms, Joe dressed my frail body and helped me to the car.

Arriving at the Accident and Emergency wing of the Kenepuru Hospital I couldn’t help but notice folks in the waiting room looking at me with puzzled curiosity. I looked like a mess and I could tell they were struggling to identify my ailment.

A nurse quickly arrives with a wheelchair and whisks me into the treatment area. She hands me a gown and I crawl onto the gurney.  An oxygen mask is attached to my face. Lit by the bright fluorescent hospital lights, the nurses begin to quiz me and the psych assessment begins.  “So… you swam the Cook Strait, did you… hmmmm….. so… was there anyone else with you… did you have a boat… hmmmm … have you ever swum long distances before? What – without a wetsuit??!!!”

With each answer I broke into a coughing fit. My chest sounded as if I’d swallowed a baby’s rattle. Finally convinced of my sanity, but still concerned for my health, they organized an ambulance and transferred me to Wellington Hospital for specialist care.

High on oxygen and delirious with exhaustion, I couldn’t help but chat with the paramedics in the back of the ambulance. Honestly, I’m pretty sure they wanted to just hit me on the head and shut me up. On and on I talked. Exactly what I talked about, I’m not really sure.

In Wellington Hospital the doctors ran a battery of tests, gave me more oxygen, and IV fluids. The hydration helped and I was slowly coming back to life, but my lungs still rattled.

Tentatively diagnosed with “Saltwater Aspiration Syndrome," the doctors were, however, not convinced. “We’d like to do a chest x-ray, keep you overnight at least, and run a few more tests.”

“But I’m flying back the US tomorrow night!!!” I panicked. “Oh, no you’re not… we’re concerned you might go into acute respiratory failure.”

It was 3am and all I wanted to do was sleep. I wanted to sleep horizontal in a dark room without the prodding and checking of nurses. I knew they were just trying to help, but I’ve spent more than my fair share of time in a hospital, and I wanted OUT. While my lungs still rattled, breathing was a little easier and I promised to return if my condition worsened. Reluctantly, they discharged me.

Unable to upgrade from economy, the flight back to US was painful. Correction. My re-entry to Earth was painful. As the plane landed in SF, shaking and shuddering,  I felt like I had just splashed down in the Atlantic after successfully completing the first suborbital space flight. I was one of the Mercury Seven, and I was back to reality.