How Much Oxygen?

Thank you all for the tremendous response to last week’s post. I can hardly describe how relieved I felt after I wrote and shared news of our recent ordeal and its aftermath. Your comments via email, Facebook, and the blog itself encourage me to continue to open up in this way, as a link to my family and friends as well as a voice of vulnerability for Brilliance-Based Businesswomen and Careerwomen everywhere.  

imagesLet’s talk now about another Aha! that came to me from this experience.  I hope that sharing it will be useful for you, whether you have a loved one with a chronic illness, you know someone who currently does, or you might in the future.

You know that adage “put your own oxygen mask on first before you assist others”?  In the past few months I’ve thought about this phrase especially frequently. Maybe I’d internalized it somewhere as a mental standard. Yet I didn’t really want to meet it during those five days in the hospital and the several weeks that immediately followed.

In the hospital my time was dedicated almost exclusively to A.’s care and learning how to manage his T1D long term. (By the way, I can’t imagine a better place to be in this scenario than Boston Children’s Hospital. I’m so grateful to them for all the medical care and education they gave us). At that point I felt like I was in a foreign language immersion course I hadn’t planned to attend.

Not only was I away from my usual jobs of running connect2 Corporation, parenting two kids, managing a home, and caring for myself, but suddenly I found myself instantly hired for the brand-new, full-time job of T1D Mom. Unlike most jobs, doing it well happened to truly be a matter of life or death.  My main focus was soaking in all the information I could, all of which was delivered to me in the foreign language of diabetes-speak.  Why would I make time for three meals a day when I could get by on two? Why would I stop to exercise?

“Put your oxygen mask on first” comes, as we all know, from the scenario of an airplane cabin losing air pressure, when the oxygen mask drops down from that panel in the ceiling. If someone needs help – an elderly person, a child, somebody disabled in some way – you put your own oxygen mask on first and *then* you help the person next to you. The theory goes if you’re not breathing, you can’t be helpful to the person next to you. You are encouraged to put your need for life-saving oxygen *first* so you are able to serve others.

This metaphor is a beautiful one that I’ve used many times, thankfully not ever having experienced the literal situation. What I’d never considered before is that I’d been applying it to many situations that are nothing like the terrifying scenario for which it was originally intended. The inherent crisis situation of the loss of cabin pressure and its immediate aftermath is potentially deadly but relatively quick. Chronic illness is also a potentially deadly crisis, but it’s long-term. For this reason, the metaphor doesn’t actually apply.

An hour before we even arrived at the hospital, when the doctor told me my kid’s diagnosis over the phone (Paraphrasing our pediatrician: Despite these creative alternative explanations you’ve come up with, Debra, Type 1 Diabetes is the only one that makes medical sense, it’s definitely happening and it IS a big deal), I realized that I had to handle it myself in that moment. I put on my big girl panties and immediately understood there was no time to put my own oxygen mask on first.

I would like there to have been. I would like to have paused to do some research. I would like to have phoned a friend.  I would like to have made myself a big cup of tea. I would like to have packed a nice overnight bag. I would like to have taken a moment to cry. I would like to have gotten a manicure first. I would like to have eaten a healthy meal before we left. I could have taken a host of action steps in the interest of my own self-care that, in theory, would have supported me taking better care of my child. But in reality this situation was not only emergent, it was also clearly going to last more than a few horrible minutes. It wasn’t a time for me to take care of myself first. It was a time for every maternal instinct I always feared I never truly had to kick in full steam.

So I asked the doctor a few critical questions, hung up, and went to rouse my kids out of bed to share the distressing news with them. Our arrival at the Children’s Emergency Room quickly reinforced to me the extent to which this was a true emergency. We never even sat down in the ER. We never waited for a triage nurse. As soon as we said A’s name, they brought us right back and started hooking him up to things. It was fast.

While I was there, I didn’t get a full night’s sleep. I was up pretty much the entire night. That was okay with me. I wasn’t having an easy time, but I don’t wish for a second that I had done other things to take care of myself ahead of my child on those first few days or even those first weeks.

People asked me questions over the phone that were meant to be helpful, like: Have you eaten? I would say: No, I haven’t had time to eat. They’d say: You have to put your oxygen mask on first; you have to go eat. I would say: Now is not the time. I don’t regret looking at it that way.

On Friday of the diagnosis week, it just so happened that I had a massage booked for myself (because I schedule monthly massages for the entire upcoming calendar year at the end of the prior year). By that day, things had calmed down a little bit, although A. still needed to be in the hospital. I left my son in the capable hands of the entire medical staff of Boston Children’s Hospital plus his father — and I went out for a few hours to get the massage followed by a full sit-down meal with a close friend. The experience was deeply nourishing in multiple ways. Then I went back to the hospital and stayed until he was discharged the next afternoon. Was it extravagant and ridiculous to indulge in self-care right then? I don’t think so. But it wouldn’t have been right for me on Days One, Two or even Three.

Not in January, or even February, was I ready to resume my usual standard of self-care. I only started exercising regularly again last week. And my food is still not where I’d like it to be. I still can’t devote as much time to work as I’d like to, but I hired two more part-time members to the connect2 Super Support Team who help me keep everything going swimmingly. Last week I started blogging again. My desk is clean. My kids are now enrolled in summer camp. And today, a full 10 weeks in, at least in this moment, I’m once again breathing just fine.


  1. Sheri

    Beautiful, Debra. Your story so shows the power of being in the moment, even if it feels like we might have been 'better prepared' with some notice, for cryin' out loud! My experience with a 'child' aka my dad at 80 with COPD, CHF, cognitive impairment and 4 x day insulin dependent was like yours: you show up and do what you have to do. NOT at all the same as with your little man but the idea that 'darn adequate', in any given moment, became my ideal. So hats-off to you and your son, finding your way together. You are a great team and will continue to grow in your mastery of this new way of being…one day and one triumph at a time. Cheering for you both…Sheri

    • Debra Woog

      Exactly! In my case I am caring for a child. In your case, a parent. The common link is *us*: smart, sensitive women with commitments to our loved ones, our clients and ourselves. When all 3 groups of constituents have intense needs simultaneously, we have to make some tough choices. In my case and yours, we chose to lower our standards for ourselves rather than drop anything or anyone entirely. A whole lot of darn adequate can indeed be a triumph!

  2. Stef

    Your use of systems supported you here! Since your massage was pre-scheduled, and fell at a time when you could get away for a couple of hours, it was right there when you needed it, supporting you like a good system does. Sure you could have skipped it but you were aware enough and A was supported enough that you could take it. Everyone's oxygen masks were on, including yours.
    My recent post SPARE ME The Undertaste!

    • Debra Woog

      What a beautiful way to look at it. Definitely different from how I framed it. Thanks!

  3. @KrisnaLoves

    Absolutely beautiful Darlin'! As a self-love/self-care catalyst and supporter, it is certainly familiar terrain to discuss the importance of oxygen masks. As a mother with two little ones of my own, I understand to some degree it is not always the most appropriate concept. However, what I have learned (and what I educate my clients on), is that by taking excellent care of yourself when you can, you will be more prepared to handle situations that require self sacrifice (for a period of time). The fact that you have awareness of what your needs are, and your ability to utilize any support you have, can certainly get you back on track much more quickly. 10 weeks in? EXCELLENT!!! And maybe contrary to the wisdom of flight attendants, taking care of our responsibilities as a parent IS a form of self-care. At least it is in this house. 🙂

    • Debra Woog

      You totally get what I was trying to say! I too am a big advocate of self-care. Thank you for extending the dialogue to include a message I felt but did not articulate.