Why my vest airway clearance machine is like a form of meditation

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by Kevin Schaefer |

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Machines are a vital and everyday component of my existence. There’s the BiPAP machine pumping air into my lungs when I go to sleep. It sits on my nightstand above my cough assist, another device designed to help improve my respiratory function.

Then there’s my Jaco robotic arm, a technological marvel that looks like it’s straight out of a sci-fi movie. Its unique capabilities enable me to do physical tasks that my weakened muscles would otherwise hinder, such as feeding myself. And it’s mounted to the side of my wheelchair, which is my primary vessel of independence.

In the winter of 2010, I added another accessory to my SMA-survivor package. As I lay in a hospital bed battling a particularly ugly case of pneumonia, my pulmonologist introduced me to the Vest Airway Clearance System to help me eliminate secretions in my lungs. This piece of equipment in turn became a companion of sorts for me and remains so to this day.

At the time, I was only focused on getting well and returning to my “normal” life as quickly as possible. I was probably the only teenager who wanted to get back to school, as it meant escaping the hospital. Little did I know that once I finally did recover, the vest would remain a regular part of my medical routine for years to come. Even when I’m healthy, the vest helps keep me from getting colds and other illnesses.

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How it works

The vest wraps around my chest, with a tube connected to a box-shaped machine. Once the machine turns on, the vest begins vibrating, thus helping move secretions away from my lungs. I then begin to lightly shake. The motion the vest produces is more therapeutic, not some adrenaline-fueled roller coaster.

Ever since I started using this device, I’ve viewed it as a means of relaxation and solitude. During each 30-minute session, I sit with my thoughts and escape from the world. I often listen to music, but I’m unable to use my phone or talk coherently while doing the treatments. The vibration makes me sound like I’m trying to talk while bouncing on a trampoline.

A man with close-cropped hair, glasses, a beard, and a black T-shirt is in a power wheelchair in the bathroom with a Vest Airway Clearance System on his chest for an airway clearance session to remove secretions from his lungs. The device has two large, black tubes extending from a piece that wraps around the front of his chest. He looks directly into the camera.

Columnist Kevin Schaefer has a session with his Vest Airway Clearance System, which offers an opportunity for quiet contemplation. (Courtesy of Kevin Schaefer)

Sometimes I think about matters of life and work or ponder story ideas for something I’m writing. Other times I think about which comic book character Nicolas Cage should play in a movie. The point is that I use this time to reflect and meditate.

When I began using the vest, I dealt with many of the same teenage anxieties that other high school sophomores were experiencing. I was also coping with physical decline and struggling to reconcile my identity as a disabled person. Those early mornings I spent attached to this machine were as cathartic as my afternoon sessions watching reruns of “The Office.”

Thirteen years later, I’ve had adventures, relationships, and periods of growth that a once overwhelmed 16-year-old could never have imagined. Through every up and down, my vest has remained a constant companion, helping me process thoughts and emotions one vibration at a time.

Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.

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