“If oxygen might help with chronic fatigue, as it has helped you,” a friend asks, “how do I get on oxygen?”
First of all, one of the things that is not clear, is what recovery looks like. I think I’ve had low grade chronic fatigue for the last 7 years compared to my “normal”. Now, will I get off oxygen? I don’t know. I am hoping for September but it may be that 7 years of low grade hypoxia means I have lung damage and no, I won’t get totally off oxygen.
They have apparently recently made the guidelines for oxygen more stringent. I sort of missed that update, even though I just recertified in Advanced Cardiac Life Support. You now have to have an oxygen saturation that goes to 87% or below. It used to be 88.
Now, you can test this at home with a pulse oximeter. In 2005 after the influenza, I held my saturations but my heart rate would go up to 135. Which means that I walked across the room very very slowly because a heart rate of 135 sustained does not feel good at all. Normal is 70-100 beats per minute. You can measure pulse with just a second hand, number of beats in a minute. For oxygen saturation, you need the pulse ox and it will measure both heart rate and oxygen saturation.
So: measure pulse and saturation at rest first. Write them down.
Then walk. I usually send patients up and down the hall three times then sit them down and watch the pulse ox. In some, the heart rate jumps up. If it’s over 100 and they are getting over pneumonia, I don’t want them back at work until it is staying under 100. Or if sitting they are at a pulse of 60 and then walking it’s 95, well, I think that person needs to convalesce for a while yet. They can test at home.
As the heart rate returns to the baseline, the oxygen level will often start to drop. Does it drop to 87? Describe the test to the doctor and make sure the respiratory technician does it that way and also they should do pulmonary function tests. Mine were not normal.
Now, what if the oxygen doesn’t drop to 87? We are not done yet. What does the person do for work or do they have a toddler? If they have a toddler do the same test carrying the toddler: they sit down, exhausted and grey and this time the oxygen level drops below 87. If they do not have a toddler, do the test with two bags of groceries. Or four bricks.
When I did the formal test, the respiratory therapist said, “Let’s have you put your things down so you don’t have to carry so much.”
“I’d rather not.” I said, “I want to be able to walk on the beach, so I need the two small oxygen tanks, my bird book, camera, binoculars and something to eat.”
“Oh, ok,” she said.
So I did the test with two full tanks of oxygen, small ones, and my bird book and etc. I dropped like a rock loaded. I think I would have dropped not loaded but perhaps not as definitively. Still hurts to carry anything, even one tank of oxygen.
We are making a mistake medically when we test people without having them carry the groceries, the toddler, the oxygen tank. My father’s concentrator is pre 2013. It weighs nearly 30 pounds. Now they make ones that weight 5 pounds. Huge massive difference.