Punctured Lung

Mathias Rinstrom survives with a duct-taped valve.

It was my last trick (or what turned out to be the last) in my second run at the West 49 contest in Toronto, Canada. I did a Cab heelflip, and it felt a little bit off, but not too bad. I know I landed on the paint where the logos were because it was slippery when I over-rotated onto it. I’ve had eight concussions, so I didn’t want to hit my head again. While I was going down, I tucked my head in, which made me land more on my ass than on my back.

Right when I hit, I felt something weird happen—I couldn’t breathe and it hurt like a motherf—ker to move around. I’d punctured my lung before, and it felt kind of the same. Anyway, when I slammed I sort of held my breath and cut off my airways, so instead of the air going through my mouth, it blasted its way out through my lungs. While I was in the ambulance, the guys listened to my lungs and didn’t hear anything to make them think something was wrong.

When I got to the hospital, everyone was still wearing those masks from the SARS thing, so I couldn’t tell the patients from the doctors. They took two X-rays—one while I was breathing in and one while I was breathing out. The results showed a mild pneumothorax (a collection of gas or air which surrounds the lungs). The doc told me it wasn’t too bad and that I should go home and come back tomorrow. But then he looked at the other one and happened to notice that about 80 percent of my lung was collapsed. My lung looked like a crumpled-up grocery bag.

The doctor told me that I needed a chest tube, so I laid down on a table, and they brought in a stick about eight inches long. They put a local anesthetic on the skin, then the doctor jammed the stick between my ribs all the way up to my rib cage/chest plate. He gave me a countdown, and then popped right through it. I felt the pressure run through and build up, and I couldn’t breathe for a while. Then he pushed a tube in and hooked it up to a valve. The valve lets the air out but not back in, and every breath I took, I could feel the tube rubbing up against my lung.

After all of this, I left the hospital and went back to the hotel. I met up with everyone, and then went out to the afterparty. At this point you’re probably wondering, “Is a party the best treatment for a popped lung?” I asked myself the same thing. Anyway, the next day, I went back to the hospital and they took another X-ray. They said it looked the same, and that I should go home and come back again the next day.

Toronto was okay, but I didn’t want to stay another minute—much less another day. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice place, but I wanted to be at home. They told me I couldn’t fly home because the air that was stuck in between my chest and my lung would expand and fully collapse my lung. A fully collapsed lung on an airborne jet only means one thing: a stopped heart and a dead Swede. Since I couldn’t fly home, I was going to have to take the train—60 hours to San Diego, California!

My friend Andrew (I owe you one, buddy) drove me to Buffalo, New York, where I got on the train to Chicago, Illinois. When I got to Chicago, I took a cab to the hospital. I got there around 10:30 in the morning, and I had until 3:30 p.m. to catch the next train home, so I thought I had plenty of time. They took an X-ray right away. I asked if they could take an X-ray where I was exhaling also, but they didn’t want to. I explained that I had an 80 percent collapsed lung when I exhaled, but I guess they thought that was normal.

I sat around until three o’clock until I finally told the nurse that I had to leave. She grabbed the doctor and he told me that I had a punctured lung. He said he’d never seen the kind of valve I had, but decided that I should come back tomorrow for another X-ray. I got on the train instead. Another train had broken down, so all the sleepers were sold out—I had to sit the whole time.

The first morning on the train, I woke up and thought my chest was going to explode. It was hard to breathe, to say the least. I looked down and saw the valve rolling around on the floor. At this point, I had a tube sticking out of my chest letting the air in and out, not to mention a bit of anxiety about the whole “living and dying” thing. Ever heard the expression “Duct tape fixes everything”? Well, chalk up “use number 137,” ’cause I duct-taped the valve back on and settled in for the longest trip of my life.

When I finally got back to San Diego three days later, I went straight to the doctor’s office. They took another X-ray. As we were looking at the X-ray, the doctor made a really weird face—at least weird for a doctor to make while looking at an X-ray. I said, “It doesn’t look that good, does it?”

“No, it doesn’t,” he answered. He couldn’t believe the Canadian (or the Chicago) doctors let me leave the hospital. He looked at his watch and told me that I was going to have surgery that night or first thing in the morning. Of course, he was leaving on vacation the next day, so he admitted me to the hospital and gave me another doctor. The new doctor hooked me up to a suction, which basically goes onto the other side of the valve and sucks out the air that’s stuck in between the lungs.

Right away I felt the lung expand all the way for the first time in days. It hurt really bad, but felt really good all at the same time. After a shot of morphine, I was good to go. After all of this, they explained to me that the lung can’t heal when there’s too much pressure built up in between the rib cage and the lung. So they relieved the pressure with a chest tube. They left it on suction for a few days, and then they turned the suction off to see if the lung stayed inflated. After a few days and a lot of drugs later, my lung collapsed again (surprise!), so they were left with one of two options—either go in and glue my lung to my rib cage, or they could just staple it to my ribs. They decided to go with the staples.

First, they scraped my lung so it would adhere to my rib cage, and then they hit it with three staples. When I woke up after surgery, I had a long tube stuck in my chest, tubes coming out of my nose, and I couldn’t move a muscle. After that, everything is kind of a blur—they gave me way too many drugs. One of the nurses told me she had to run and get the adrenalin shot, because she thought I was going to OD. If you’ve seen Pulp Fiction, you know what I’m talking about.

I ended up staying in the hospital for two weeks. I got sent home with a big hole in my side (because it’s round, they can’t put sutures in). Ten days after being released, I went back to the hospital. The lung looked good, but the doctor wondered if I’d be able to skate at the same level again, since I’d be losing some flexibility and mobility—not to mention about eight percent of my lung capacity. Oh yeah, my chest is numb, too. But the way I see it, since I got my lung stapled, it can’t collapse again. So that’s just one less injury I have to worry about getting ever again.

And since my chest is still numb, I can slam even harder without feeling a thing. I guess you could say I’m like the six-million-dollar Swede.