Aeroplane in flight

Taking a deep breath

Project Manager (Bristol) on the Life of Breath project Jess Farr-Cox writes:

The first meeting of the core project team (Breathing Space) was in October 2014, in the respiratory unit of Southmead Hospital, Bristol. We were filmed throughout the day by Barry Gibb and Thomas Farnetti from the Wellcome Trust, and as Havi Carel and Jane Macnaughton note in the resulting short film, The Life of Breath, one of the strengths of the project is the diversity of the team, which includes researchers from clinical sciences, philosophy, history, anthropology, technology and literature as well as colleagues from the British Lung Foundation. Led by Breathing Space facilitator Mary Robson, this diversity became apparent when we kicked off by interrogating and then introducing someone we didn’t know in the group. Rather than meeting colleagues, this felt a little like shaking hands with a group of travelling companions, perhaps on a long-haul flight. Flying became something of a theme later that morning when we visited the respiratory unit, which is housed in a building extraordinarily like an airport.

There is a full-height atrium, desks along the walls (as though from different airlines), lists of ‘gates’, coffee shops and open-plan waiting areas: clean, airy, bustling and light.[1] It doesn’t feel like a place one would visit when unwell, but the first stop on an exciting journey and therefore an appropriate point of departure for Life of Breath. In the unit itself, two pieces of kit awaited us: a treadmill for conducting cardiac pulmonary exercise tests (CPET), and a ‘body box’ that measures lung capacity. It was striking to hear that the CPET machines are primarily used by patients with respiratory disease at one end of the spectrum, and elite athletes at the other. Andrew Russell volunteered to sit in the body box (you can see this in the film), generating a neat diagram on the spirometer (I was hoping the line might resemble a lung, but in fact it looked more like an ear), and the fact that his lung capacity is a healthy seven litres.

The morning also included a presentation from James Dodd on the physiology of breathing, emphasising both the intertwined nature of the lungs and the heart (lungs pulling gases in and out of the body; heart moving them around) and the beauty of the organs involved, particularly the bronchial tree, which has a delicate, coral-like structure. The link between the marine and the airborne had started with the departure lounge-style atrium I mentioned earlier, and considering the word ‘airport’ for the first time as an appropriation of a maritime term. As a species that sailed the seas long before we started rushing about in the skies, we apply maritime imagery freely to air-bound vehicles, speaking of airships, spaceships, cabin crew and captains. The underwater shapes of the bronchial tree, and the abundance of recycled sea-related terms came together in the afternoon. Having enjoyed free popcorn from a lady who appeared, organ-grinder-like, outside our seminar room, we watched a film about free diving. The title Narcose refers to narcosis, also called rapture of the deep. The film was inspired by the experiences of the director’s free-diving partner and the hallucinations he experiences as a result of voluntarily depriving himself of oxygen.

A few years ago, Havi wrote the following in an article for the Independent about her own experience of respiratory disorder and breathlessness:

I had to ask him to move me to the ground floor. It suddenly hit me that I have to tell people, in situations like this, that I am disabled. I still have to take a deep breath before saying this.

It’s striking how often (and how easily) we use such metaphors. The idea of inhaling before we say or do something momentous, as if those words or those actions are a body of water that we are entering, face-first, seems apposite here, too. We finished the Breathing Space meeting with a poem, and an exercise in which we wrote down as many breathing-related metaphors as we could think of (‘the lung lexicon’). The first thing I wrote was, ‘take a deep breath’. Playing piano duets with my father a few days later, I noticed that teamwork can also express itself through breathing. We have played together for so long that, even though we aren’t using wind instruments, we always breathe in together just before we start to play. Here, the music may be analogous to a body of water as I suggested above, across which we might be said to be rowing a two-man boat (in the case of myself and my father, strenuously and with questionable skill). The project itself seems to me more like the body of water captured in the photograph I have used on the project website, Twitter account and this blog: clearly delimited, but of an unknown depth and filled with countless swirling currents and bubbles of detail. As the Life of Breath eases through the gears between now and our official launch event in May 2015, the first Breathing Space meeting seems to me to have been a moment when the team, collectively, took a deep breath.


[1] Susan Hill describes the local hospital in her detective novel A Betrayal of Trust as follows: ‘Bevham General was like an airport … the all-important shopping mall, the check-in desks, the lifts, the uniforms, the people, the muzak, the big windows and the general hum. And upstairs, the quieter areas, where people waited.’ Susan Hill (2011), A Betrayal of Trust, (London: Chatto and Windus), p. 307. There are further links between this book and the concerns of the project, explored in a later blog post, ‘All his heart was cold‘.

Jess Farr-Cox

Jess is the Bristol project manager for Life of Breath. She is also a freelance proof-reader, copy-editor, indexer, teacher and writer.

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