My story: ‘My lungs collapsed twice within a year – but I won’t stop singing’

Earl John. (Photo: Instagram/@earl_john_music)
Earl John. (Photo: Instagram/@earl_john_music)

Earl John is a singer from Port Elizabeth. Within the space of a year his lungs collapsed twice – once while he was performing on stage in Spain. Despite his setbacks, he hasn’t given up his dream of singing

Here he shares his story:  

“I’ve always been passionate about music and entertaining large crowds of people.

My talent as a singer and songwriter has taken me across the world as I’ve pursued a career in the one thing I love most.

But this dream was almost cut short by an unexpected health complication. Not only did this health scare almost cost me my career, it nearly ended my life.

It all started one morning in September 2016.

I was an active, fit and positive young man who had a great outlook on life. But on this morning, everything changed. I’d just finished cleaning around the house and decided to watch a movie. Halfway through I felt an odd numbing sensation around my chest area. It quickly moved down into my left arm.

At first I didn’t think much of it but the numbing turned into intense chest pain. The first thing that came to mind was a heart attack.

I looked up the symptoms but things didn’t add up. My housemate eventually came home and found me in severe pain in the lounge. I could barely talk; my breathing had become shallow and the pain around my chest area was unbearable.

He rushed me to the doctor and I was sent for blood tests and X-rays. The results showed that my left lung had collapsed. I was dumbstruck.

The doctor explained that the collapse was spontaneous as I didn’t suffer any trauma to my chest. Spontaneous pneumothorax, as it’s called, sometimes occurs in tall, thin adolescent males due to their growth spurt. This growth spurt can cause the lungs to weaken.

I was rushed into theatre where an emergency procedure was done to relieve the pain. I spent a week in hospital before I was sent home to further recover there.

Doing basic things like walking from the bedroom to kitchen or picking up things around the house was exhausting.

But regular physiotherapy and exercises to improve my lung function helped get me back to my normal self within months.

I still couldn’t participate in extreme sports or fly in a plane as it could increase my risk of another collapse, but I was happy to have my mobility back.

By March 2017 I was singing again and by May got the opportunity to work in Spain for five months.

I was ecstatic. I was ready to break away from the dark cloud that’d been hanging over me but I still approached things with caution.

I checked in with my doctor weekly to ensure everything was in order.

I left for Spain at the end of April 2017 and the next few months were great. I felt strong and fit and life seemed normal again.

Until about four weeks before I was due to return home.

I was on stage performing. Just before we ended the first 45-minute set of our show, I started having difficulty breathing and finishing my lines was almost impossible.

I knew something was wrong but was in denial. I remember telling myself this can’t be happening.

After five months of performing about 150 shows, how could this be happening now?

I went off stage for the interval and my colleagues came to ask if I was okay. I pretended to be fine so I could finish the show.

When I got back to my apartment afterwards, I decided to give it till the next morning. If there was still no change, I’d see a doctor.

The uncomfortable feeling in my chest was still there when I woke up so I went to see a local doctor. He examined me and immediately had me admitted to hospital. I had to undergo the same emergency procedure as a year earlier in South Africa, as I’d suffered a second lung collapse.

Doctors in Spain advised me to go for corrective surgery once I got back to South Africa as the problem with my lung would be recurring.

I spent the next week in hospital and had three weeks to recover before flying home.

I feared flying – the cabin pressure could cause another collapse. I desperately prayed that my lung would last till I touched down in Cape Town. I was even scared to sleep on the flight in case something happened to me.

Thankfully I made it back safely and could see my doctor for a check-up. I was told I needed to undergo corrective surgery for my lung. That was in February 2018 and I haven’t had any further problems.

The surgery allowed me to continue my love for life and singing. I now appreciate the gift of life even more.

Although I’m still fearful it might happen again, I actively choose to ignore those fears and lead a normal life.

I must admit that being positive all the time isn't possible. For the past few months, I haven’t left the house as Covid-19 wreaks havoc outside.

My health scares place me in the high-risk category and I can’t afford to get sick.

Even though I miss the outdoors, I’m happy to stay inside and wait for this storm to pass.

Because I know it won’t last forever. Soon we can all go back to doing what we love.”

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