What Can’t I Do?

When I first got my student visa to come to America for high school, I felt like I’d just landed on the moon! I felt victorious, invincible, on top of the world!

Didn’t you feel that way too when you first got your visa heading for America, or China?

Those of us who’ve experienced the long arduous process of learning a new language (English or Chinese – depending on your dream destination), preparing the application package, passing the admission criteria, convincing our parents we were ready to take on the world, we often subconsciously thought ...”OK now…What can’t I do?”

This past weekend, I found myself thinking back on this euphoric naivety in my youth as I look forward to Thanksgiving next week.


Perhaps as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more mindful of the unpredictability of events that could instantly derail my sense of stability or safety.  Believe it or not, my first brush with death came just weeks after I arrived in America to start my senior year in high school – I was just 17 years old.

The image is still sharp, the sensation still palpable.

I was lying on the floor gasping for air feeling like a 500 pound tractor-trailer was rolling up and down my chest. I couldn’t breathe. Luckily, my uncle was around the house at the time – he seemed incredulous at first.

“What’s the matter? What’s wrong?” He urged me to sit up and drink some tea.

“I can’t…I can’t breathe.”

While fighting the excruciating pain in my chest and coughing uncontrollably, I tried to tell him as best I could that I was losing it….my strength, my breathe….all fading away fast.

“What’s happened? When did this happen? Are you having a bad cold that turned ugly?” I still remembered he was desperately looking for causes while my life-threatening symptoms were unfolding fast and furious.

“Please take me to the hospital…” I remember pleading with him in my broken English mixed with some Cantonese….repeating “I can’t breathe…”

Thankfully, he rushed me to the closest hospital emergency room and the ER doctors there immediately took an X-ray of my chest to see what was wrong. As it turned out, 80% of my left lung had already collapsed and was on the brink of a complete breakdown. If that happened, my right lung, just existing by itself to sustain my breathing, would begin to rapidly crumple. In that scenario, it would be a matter of minutes before my right lung would eventually collapse, leading to sudden death.

What I had suffered was clinically diagnosed as Pneumothorax – a collapsed lung. There are many causes – but mine was determined to be congenital. I had suffered no prior injury to my chest, but I had carried a lot of heavy baggage during air travel to America that might have been too much for my 95 pound body and wafer-thin frame.

To treat me, doctors had to insert a tube between my ribs into the air-filled space that was pressing on the collapsed lung. The goal was to relieve the pressure on my lung, allowing it to re-expand on its own. It took five days in the hospital, and many hours of screaming pain with occasional dose of pain-killers before I would gradually show signs of recovery.

Those long and lonely nights in the hospital room with strangers while my Hong Kong family was thousands of miles away had forced me to do nothing but pray. I prayed for mercy – a second chance in life. I reflected on my youthful sense of indestructibility and the unpredictability of life events.

I’d quickly learned to ground my hope not in my own strength anymore, but in God.  The severe chest pain subsided over time, my breathing problem eased over time, my health restored to normal after two weeks.

Reflecting on “What can’t I do?” , I realize I can’t predict what may happen to me at any point anywhere. I actually have had more than one close call in my life. But I also recognize what I can do – keep the faith and stay grateful.

Mable, New York

Mable Chan

Mable Chan is the founder of China Personified. Her contact is mablechan@chinapersonified.com.