When I Reached the Top, My Lungs Stopped Working
I power up the dirt track on a rickety contraption of metal and gears. The path is bright orange in the dense jungle, a groove forged by other cyclists trying to reach the same goal – the hotel pool. The sun beats down, encompassing me in a thick blanket of heat. I am metres away from our destination. My quads scream as I push myself up the hill. Suddenly, something pulls in my chest.
“Ah!” I cry out.
In front of me, Fred whips around. As a Scandinavian, double my size, I doubt he’d broken a sweat over the last five ks.
“My chest,” I gasp. He drops his bike and clambers downhill, guiding me to a fallen log. I scramble on and pant to catch my breath, the ache ebbs away.
“You okay?” he asks.
I nod, testing out a finger, then an arm. Possibility of a punctured lung forgotten, I grab my bike and march on, determined for the solace of water on skin.
Cuba is an incredibly odd place to travel. With its vintage cars and underground salsa bars, the country is renowned for being an archetype of the 80s. But so is its access to the internet. With no way to research where to stay, the best thing to do is just turn up. Which is how we found ourselves at a casa particularés in the middle of Viñales city. And while this bed and breakfast was cosy, there was no way to escape the midday heat. So having exhausted the rest of a limited itinerary, we found ourselves over at the town’s hotel pool.
The water is bliss — refreshingly cool against my scorched skin, almost making the whole ride worth it. As we eat and take shelter from the afternoon downpour, my pain reduces itself to a speck in my subconscious.
On our way home, we speed downhill past simple colour-blocked houses and limestone mountains, reaching the main strip in seemingly seconds. As we turn off to our casa, the road climbs uphill. I swerve around potholes and skip over rocks. The house is close.
We climb and I breathe harder and heavier. Suddenly a searing pain smacks me in the back, right behind my heart. It travels through my chest like lightning. Wheel and gears blur into my vision as I smack into the concrete. Suddenly there are arms around me, lifting me, guiding me inside, placing me gently on the bed.
“What’s wrong?” Fred asks, his voice full of worry.
“I can’t move,” I manage to hiss, sipping tiny portions of oxygen into my lungs. The pain has me contorting, trying to find a position that relieves the bulbous pressure tearing into my chest.
“Should I call an ambulance?”
I peer up at him. I get one look at his terrified eyes and can’t help a laugh bubbling itself up. It escapes and I cringe in pain. “Wait, just let me see if I have something for it.”
Half an hour later, I’ve tried every relevant medication in my overstuffed first aid kit – Panadol, tiger balm, Ventolin. Nothing eases the pain but stillness. I lie stock still on my back, sweating. Fred lies next to me, a pre-downloaded audiobook our only company.
“If this was my heart I should have died by now, right?” I suggest.
Fred shifts the cold water-bottle on my chest and says sceptically, “We can still go to the hospital.”
I shake my head. I wouldn’t call an ambulance until I had passed out, or was sure something was broken. If I could grit my teeth and get through this, I would.
The next morning, we walk along the more major of Viñales two roads. Well, Fred walks. I shuffle cautiously, my back rigid in place. I smile toothily at Fred, trying to convince him I’m okayy. We pass an unremarkable shopfront, the interior like the prescription section of a pharmacy.
I stop, hope bubbling up, and step in to request what I can only describe as lung-decompressing-pills. Fred grabs my arm. Every person in line holds a hand-written script. I watch in dismay as a prescription is exchanged for the same off-brand Panadol I buy for a dollar in Coles.
I can’t ignore it any longer. The more I breathe, the harder it is to suck in air. My lung is going to explode in my chest cavity, I think, or my aorta is about to rupture. Fear is creeping up on me, shrouding me, surrounding me. My left arm is tingling. Am I having a heart attack? Is my heart muscle slowly deteriorating as I stand here, refusing to get help?
“I need a doctor.”
I lie on the examination table staring up at the stale ceiling. The doctor taps the sole of my foot. “Pain?” he asks.
I murmur, “No.”
“Eat spicy?” he asks.
I murmur no again. I’m nervous. Was it emergency surgery time? He moves around the table and presses on my abdomen.
I shake my head. He gestures for me to get off the table. “Hiceste ejercicio recientemente?”
I look at Fred expectantly. This whole visit has been a jumble of translation.
“Si,” Fred says, “We exercised, this happened after riding bicycles.”
“Ahh!” says the doctor, his eyes lighting up. “Musculo intercostal!” he says, pointing at my ribs. I’m confused.
“You ride your bike in the sun and you breathe,” he says, panting to demonstrate, “and you sprain this muscle, all the way around your body. You breathe,” he puffs out his chest, “you pull a little more.” He looks satisfied. He hands me a script for Ibuprofen which I gaze at bemused.
I smile at him sheepishly and take the script, silently apologising for the heart attack I’d manifested from, apparently, breathing too much.
As I slip through the door, shame burning on my face, the doctor puts his hand on my shoulder and winks.
“Do not worry,” he says leaning in, “you are not the first.”
Cover by Wladislaw Peljuchno; inset by the author