It has been five years since I have been on an airplane. How sad it that? Well, that is about to change in a big kind of way. However, my lungs have significantly declined over the past five years and so I was concerned that if I try to fly, my oxygen saturation may tank. I really don't want to be responsible for grounding a plane so I decided to voice my concern with my doctor. We decided that altitude testing would be appropriate before I step foot on a plane.
I wanted to share what altitude testing consists of for anyone that may find themselves in a similar situation or if you are just curious. Altitude testing is supposed to simulate what breathing feels like at 8,000 feet which is how high most commercial planes go. I was super nervous for the testing, not because I was worried it would be a difficult test, but because I really wasn't sure I could pass which would mean I would require oxygen to fly. My oxygen saturation on room air is still really good, 98%, but my lung function being around 32% makes me more likely than someone with good lung function to struggle with any changes in altitude. I also had a quick panic while waiting to be called back for the test because my legs were a bit (lot?) prickly as I get lazy with shaving in the winter and I panicked I may be asked to change into a gown!
When I finally got called back I quickly relaxed realizing there was no need to change from my street clothes. Whew! There were two RTs waiting for me, but they were waiting on the doctor who had to be present during the test in case something went wrong. After signing all the consent forms I was hooked up to several monitors. There were 5 heart monitors, a pulse ox (on my forehead! Apparently my hands were too cold and not reading well so they wrapped a pulse ox reader to my forehead), a nose cannula, a blood pressure cuff and finally a mask that looks exactly like a bipap mask (or so I am told because I have never used a bipap). The oxygen cannula was used so that if any point during the test my oxygen SATs fell below 89% they would slowly administer oxygen to see what amount of oxygen I would require while traveling via plane.
After everything was set up they turned on the mask. Apparently, air with a lower amount of oxygen (to simulate the air on a commercial plane) was being blown into the mask. I couldn't feel any air being pushed through the mask, but they made me sit there for a few seconds to watch my oxygen saturation. They asked how short of breath I was using a scale from 1-10.
They then asked me to talk because they want to simulate what a plane ride would be like and likely I would be talking at some point. Although I am not a shy person randomly chatting to three men while having wires protruding from your head, all sides of your body, and while wearing a huge mask was not totally in my comfort zone. Luckily, everyone was nice and I got in a flow of telling them about our future vacation. Although about every 60 seconds one of them had to interrupt to ask me about shortness of breath and they often looked away to check the monitors. So basically, I was chatting, but wasn't really being listened to which made talking feel somewhat pointless (even though I know I was doing it in the name of science!).
My oxygen was fine so they made me stand up and march in place (while talking) which again was somewhat humorous considering the monitors. Every one minute I was asked about my breathing and every two minutes I had to quickly sit down when the arm cuff started reading. Oh, to be a fly on that wall, I am sure the whole thing looked so absurd!
After a few minutes my oxygen was still fine so they had me sit and stand (like squats) over and over. The told me that if this didn't drop my sats nothing would. My oxygen saturation hung on through the squats although they did hit 89% which means my oxygen was only 1% away from being considered too low. Luckily, I likely will not be working out on the plane. At the end of the test they congratulated me because I passed and could fly without oxygen!! It was such a huge relief!! They did say that if I were to get sick before the flight it would be best to postpone because a respiratory infection may bring my oxygen saturation down. They did, however, feel that even if my oxygen dropped a little I would probably be okay to fly, but should bring a pulse ox reader and limit my activity. Of course, on the way to a trip it is much easier to cancel than on a flight home especially since I couldn't extend my stay longer than I had medication supply for so hopefully I will stay healthy on my next vacation.