‘Everybody can breathe with their mouth closed?’ I was dumbfounded. How had I never noticed?’: Woman with severe nasal blockage takes first breath through nose after 26 years

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“There I was, talking to a friend about her new pillow that allowed her to breathe out of her nose all day instead of just until the afternoon, when I discovered something that would soon change my life. My question, ‘Is your doctor dumbfounded that you’re able to breathe with your mouth closed  all the time now?’ This brought a shocking response. Everybody can breathe with their mouth closed? This was new information to me. I asked everybody I knew to close their mouths and take some deep breaths. How had I never noticed? It seemed everybody could do this but me.

At this point in my life, chronic health problems had led me to see a multitude of doctors, including ENTs, and to do a sleep study. First, I was diagnosed with sleep apnea before making the decision at 21 to have my tonsils removed. Now at 26 years old and armed with this new information, I decided to try another ENT to see if my chronic mouth breathing was causing the pain, irritation, bad breath, and general stickiness of my throat that had never been rectified. One camera scope up my nose later… I found out nothing. The nurse practitioner couldn’t get the scope very far, so two weeks of antibiotics, nasal steroids, allergy meds, and three-a-day nasal rinses later I went back for a CT scan. What I found out was mind blowing to me.

You see, I could always smell. I brought air in through my nose and never had any reason to question the amount of air I was able to breathe. The school system hadn’t failed me, my parents hadn’t failed me, just my own perception of what they were telling me. However, the scan showed that I had almost every problem the sinuses could have. The nurse practitioner and surgeon were both surprised by the lack of impact this problem had on my life. My sinuses were at a 90% blockage just from genetic abnormalities, let alone the impact everyday mucus could have. My nostrils completely collapsed when I inhaled and you could hear every breath I took. Go ahead, stop, see if yours do the same. And if they do? Go to the doctor; it isn’t supposed to be like that.

Next, a whirlwind occurred just trying to get to surgery. My diagnosis came in early December, so we had Christmas and New Years, then I was scheduled to have some big changes in my position at work, so I scheduled my procedures for the end of January. Then there was a new bump in the road: my husband and I were diagnosed with COVID-19. I couldn’t even get a proper PCR test because my sinus passage was so blocked up. Fortunately, I tested negative exactly two weeks before surgery, the minimum time to go ahead with the plan. Then I had to quarantine an additional 5 days prior to the surgery with more COVID-19 testing done to be sure. Finally, despite some obstacles that stood in my way, the day came. This was my 11th surgery. I knew what to expect in pre-op, when I arrived at the OR, and in recovery, but I had no idea what it would feel like to have my sinus cavity completely reconstructed. I had focused so hard on my past history of post-op vomiting that I forgot to discuss with the team my poor response to pain medication. When I say poor, I mean it doesn’t really work at all.

I woke up in a massive amount of pain and with a serious need to pee. After bartering with the recovery nurse, I was allowed to go to the bathroom and given another dose of pain medication. With my head wrapped in a warm blanket, my face wrapped in ice packs, and my pulse-ox lighting the way, they wheeled me back to my room where I was so excited to inform my mom that they had instead turned me into E.T. Not entirely sure where the logic is in that discovery, anesthesia can be a fickle thing.

Overall, I had a septoplasty, four turbinate reductions, two turbinate expansions, concha bullosa, balloon sinuplasty, and tubes placed, but what were visible were my double black eyes, a yellow nose, and splints and stitches up both nostrils. Plus, I had to wear this funny little gauze cast to catch all the blood. I couldn’t wash my face for five days, eating was impossible, brushing my teeth was out of the question, and I had to learn to sleep propped up on my back. On day 5 I had to go in and get my sinuses suctioned because the rinses weren’t working and I felt like my head was going to explode. 8 days after, I learned why it was so recommended. I found out that every second of pain and discomfort was completely, utterly, over the moon worth it.

Courtesy of Taylor Hay

I went in for my first post-op appointment to get my stitches and splints removed and let me tell you, those splints are no joke. I had no idea these pieces of plastic, as long as my hand is wide, were pressed up inside there. My doctor took out the right side, gave me a moment to breathe in a clear one-sided breath, and then tried to take out the left side. It had become embedded and was not wanting to budge. After five tries and some unintended tears down my face, it finally came shooting out. I was so relieved to have the process over and just sat to marvel over the size of those splints. I didn’t even realize I was breathing out of my nose, like, completely independently. Finally, I stopped and took a deep breath. A real, deep breath. A breath that made no noise, filled my lungs all the way, and caused no movement on my face. I thanked the doctor, scheduled my next post op, and headed to my car. The moment my door closed, I burst into tears.

Now, it seems so silly to think back on a whole life of what it was like and not understand how I never knew. Think about the things that you experience every day and what you would never question. It seems more silly that I sat and balled like a baby because I could smell the cold air and the trash they were loading as I walked out. I could smell my lunch in the container next to me. I could feel cold air like it was behind my eyes. And for the first time, I sat there and breathed through my nose, and only my nose. I know now that my sense of smell was nothing compared to what it could have been. And along with your smell comes your taste. I lost my taste with COVID-19 and just happened to get it back two days before getting my splints out. So while I may not have a direct comparison of before and after, I can tell you that my general taste has been sharpened to where I now enjoy many foods I did not before. The variety of flavors have opened up the doors on food, especially spicy food.

Courtesy of Taylor Hay

Still floating on this unexpected life change, that night I decided to post my experience on Reddit. Why not make a couple people smile over how silly I felt? The feedback was incredible. 81,700 people upvoted my story, over 2000 comments were made. I received over 400 messages and was awarded over 450 times. A lot of people had comments asking how dumb could I be that I never knew. But would you know any different if something had existed right on the edge of ridiculous your whole life? Then there was the incredible number of people who had experienced the same thing, who shared their stories and their tips, and their moments that brought them to tears. But the best part of my story is the number of people who sent me messages or commented that they experienced the same thing and either never questioned it either or who knew and I had now given them the courage to go ahead with the surgery and make their own story.

3 months ago I learned that you should be able to breathe through your nose. 8 days ago I underwent extensive reconstructive sinus surgery. Today I got out my stitches and splints and breathed a real breath through my nose for the first time in 26 years. It’s silly but I cried. from MadeMeSmile

To all of you who never listened when your gym teacher told you to breath in through your nose and out through your mouth, who wake up with dry, cracked lips because your mouth was open all night, who have nostril collapse, who can hear themselves breathing, who brush your teeth three or sometimes four times a day, and who don’t know what real smell and taste is like? I was you. I was scared. But I am here to tell you it is worth it.

Listen to the doctors and follow the instructions perfectly. Those 8 days with splints and 3 weeks of limited activity seem like a lifetime. But when you genuinely compare those to a real forever lifetime you see how worth it it is. My throat is no longer in pain, irritated, dry, and sticky. Once the healing is done, I can stop living on mints, gum, and whatever else I can to get rid of the taste of drainage. I now have more control over my anxiety. And I can’t wait to go back to the gym next week and learn what it is like to do cardio. ‘In through your nose, out through your mouth’ is going to finally be me. It was noted in my last post-op appointment that I had bruising unlike any similar procedure they had seen before. This gave physical proof that I have experienced something unreal.”

Courtesy of Taylor Hay

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Taylor Hay of Atlanta, GA. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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