I unzipped my flight suit to check my skin, hoping to see nothing but pale flesh and freckles. Instead, I saw a trace of budding crimson, forming a shape like a cumulus cloud on my stomach. Opening past my belly, I saw similar rosy blotches on my thighs. My flesh looked like a meteorologist’s weather map—the red inching across my body like a radar warning.
The voice on the other end of the line was firm. “Captain, you need to report back to the chamber ASAP for treatment. Don’t go anywhere else. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll be right there.”
The truth was, I didn’t want to understand. I’d been on active duty for almost a decade, flying the C-130 around the globe. I’d flown Navy Seals out of unmarked outposts in Venezuela and counter-drug ops in Columbia. This was supposed to be routine stateside training. This wasn’t supposed to be the thing that could kill me.
The pain in my joints was invisible, but the developing skin rash was visible proof that I was suffering from the bends, otherwise known as decompression sickness.
Commonly associated with scuba divers coming up from a dive too quickly, the bends can also be caused by flying at high altitudes or in an unpressurized cockpit. When the human body is rapidly exposed to a loss of pressure, nitrogen bubbles are released from the blood and tissues. Once it turns into a gas bubble, nitrogen can travel. It can wreak havoc. The less-threatening indication is joint pain and a skin rash. More serious is when those bubbles start to block the flow of blood. The worst case is death.
The cure, according to the hyperbaric medicine team at the end of the phone line? To spend the night in an oxygen-rich, nitrogen-balanced, highly flammable vault under massive pressure, the equivalent of being sixty feet underwater.
I’d been in a chamber before, one that went up instead of down. One that had a dozen flyers instead of just me. That first time, it was an altitude chamber at Williams Air Force Base (AFB), where I was what we call a new butter bar—a Second Lieutenant—in the Air Force’s pilot training program. Named for the one-inch gold bars we wore affixed to each shoulder, I understood that I was one of many. To comply with flight training regulations, I’d chopped off my long brown hair into a neat bob that fell above my collar. I wore a standard-issue G-shock: a thick, black digital watch that fit around my slender bones like a weight-lifter’s wrist wrap. The way it was told to me was this: I now lived according to that watch.
When my G-shock indicated it was time to report for my first chamber flight, I approached the Air Force building. I felt alienated by its sign alone: Aerospace Physiology. For my first few months on active duty, I’d been learning a foreign language, applying the physics of flight in four letter words: lift, drag, flap, skid, skin, fire, fuel. I’d memorized aircraft limits around five letter words: thrust, brake, vector, speed, eject. But the nineteen letters that defined this building and the science inside made me doubt myself.
What the hell even is Aerospace Physiology? I thought. I just want to fly a plane.
Before being allowed near the sleek white jets, we had to identify the assorted ways death might come to us unnoticed. Stepping inside this building was one of the training phases required to unmask some of the more insidious ways death might arrive in the cockpit. Ways in which we could become incapacitated. The language of Air Force pilot training was an art in euphemisms. Incapacitated was our polite way to say: dead, mort, ix-nayed, smokin’ hole, goner. Unsatisfactory, or Unsat, was our polite way to say: you flew that sortie like crap, you’ll have to fly that profile again, you sucked. And Washing Out of pilot training was our polite way to say: kicked out, booted out, gate guard, good-bye.
At the top of the list of ways to die was hypoxia, or oxygen debt, which manifested differently in different people. We had to learn how to recognize our individual symptoms, the instructors told us, so that if we encountered the real thing in flight, we could take critical steps to avoid passing out. The only way we could practice in a controlled environment was to take a simulated “flight” in an altitude chamber—a sci-fi-like multi-million-dollar device that looked like a fat, white submarine, complete with anachronistic steel hull and giant pipes. The contraption replicated a hypobaric environment by removing air in the chamber.
Once inside the Aerospace Physiologybuilding, we tested our equipment. We hooked up gray regulators that dangled from our masks like slinky toys and breathed oxygen. We checked for a “good seal,” which meant that no air could escape between mask and skin. I watched each breath I took on the readout, a black and white disk flipping back and forth in time to my inhales and exhales, like a personal metronome.
For the first thirty minutes, alongside a dozen other studs, or student pilots, I breathed 100% oxygen. This purged the nitrogen from our bodies and, in theory, also prevented the bends. Each of us sat next to an assigned personal oxygen station inside the chamber. Each of us wore a helmet and communicated via a closed intercom system. Each of us listened with rapt attention to the expert, a highly animated Sergeant giving briefings on what to expect and how to stay safe.
After the pre-breathe period was complete, he announced, “We’re going up. Stay ahead of it. Don’t forget to yawn.”
The chamber’s air climbed in altitude, and we continued to breathe through the gray hoses attached to our masks. Then we experienced a simulated unpressurized flight. I dropped my mask, as directed, and inhaled the raw air of 25,000 feet, or two-five-oh. Breathing air at two-five-oh felt like breathing air at Walgreens. I couldn’t tell the difference. It felt like sea level. In other words: there was a moment where I doubted that I’d be affected by what came next.
“Your vision might lose color soon,” the tech said. He reminded us that our unpressurized environment and the lack of oxygen to our brains would trigger our own personal hypoxia signs. He told us to breathe and take notes. “A fingerprint,” he called it. “Your speech might start to slur. Start writing on your notepad. If you see your handwriting turn to chicken scratch, that’s one of your personal hypoxia signs.”
The Air Force had never before asked me to be self-aware. They’d asked me to assimilate, not evaluate. This, on the other hand, was like telling someone who had never taken a sip of alcohol to drink a dozen shots of vodka and note the signs of getting slammed. Inebriated, they’d call it.
I stared at my hand under the Nomex gloves and began writing my name over and over. I studied my looping capital “L” and wondered, as the minutes progressed, if that was my normal “L,” or if it was what I might scrawl on a bar tab after shots on an empty stomach.
Definitely a gorgeous “L,” I thought.
“You should be noticing your signs about now,” the tech said. “If your vision is starting to narrow, it’s time to put your mask up.”
I looked around. The chamber was quiet, aside from the mechanical hum of pressure regulators. No one was putting their mask up.
“Light-headed, graying vision—those are also good signals it’s time for your mask. Remember what your signs are. Keep track. As soon as you put your mask back on, write down your hypoxia signals. Record what you felt.”
Not only did they want me to observe myself, but they also wanted me to chronicle it, like a diarist. I started to feel something—but I couldn’t pinpoint what it was. I doubted myself when I looked around and saw everyone continuing to breathe the vodka-air. That’s when I realized: we weren’t in training anymore. We were in a competition.
Because of my gender, I felt any mistake I made in the Air Force was amplified, just as any success was modulated. I had to land the plane smoother than my male colleagues. Know the electrical systems better. Wear my uniform sharper. Deal with jerks more courteously. Drop Army Rangers onto targets more accurately. And do every other aspect of my high-stress job with more apparent ease. I could not benefit from military camouflage. I could not be just one of the guys, someone no one remembered at the end of a flight, a What’s his name.
I’d be damned if I was going to be the first person to put my mask on.
“You might feel tingly sensations in your extremities. If you wait too long to put your mask up, you will pass out,” the tech warned. “You will not remember passing out. And if you pass out, one of us will have to put your mask on for you.”
They’ve doubled down on the stakes, I thought. I’ve got to get drunk enough on this air to beat everyone, but not hypoxic enough to pass out. I can do this, I thought.
I noticed myself becoming lightheaded. I noticed myself doubting my “Ls” and deciding they were too loopy. Still I held out. Finally, I saw out of my periphery that Grady had clipped his mask back on. Bosco and Spanky followed. I kept writing, adding sentences beyond my name. My cursive started to coil like a snake on the small notepad.
This is it, I thought. This is my sign. Still I held out. Just another minute.
Three more studs in the chamber clipped the silver fitting of their mask back in place and started breathing the good air again. Hypoxia was a beast. No one—even as they recognized the signs—could have any idea how far they were drifting, which made this a passing-out-roulette of the highest order.
With my eyes on my notepad, I felt my vision whittle to a narrow tunnel. I could no longer see the white chamber, the tech, or anyone next to me. I put down my pen and fumbled for my mask clip. I caught the edge and jammed it up, sealing the rubber around my face as if applying firm, direct pressure to a gushing wound.
The relief was immediate, as advertised. I breathed deeply, and the gray walls receded, replaced by my peers: Starky to my left and Lemon to my right. I looked down at my notepad and was shocked to see a page filled with illegible scribble. I couldn’t make out a single “L.”
A rush of activity broke out at the far end of the chamber, and the techs sprinted over to Lumpy, who was starting to keel over onto his side. His eyes were rolling up. It was like watching your buddy fall into the bushes outside the O-Club on a Friday night, drunk, wasted, blacking out, inebriated, incapacitated. With the quick action of the techs, Lumpy was back on 100% oxygen and came to quickly. We all knew he wouldn’t remember it. I felt sorry for him, because he looked like Humpty Dumpty. Like a fool. Like the loser.
“Look at the white glove,” the tech directed us. At the beginning of the chamber ride, he’d hung a latex glove on a clothesline that stretched from one end of the chamber to the other. An hour ago, it was limp. But as our altitude had increased, the pressure in the chamber had decreased, and the glove had expanded like a balloon. Now it was huge.
The tech named the responsible laws of physics, but it was the visuals that remained—the over-inflated glove, no longer recognizable, no longer the shape of a human hand but something altogether bloated.
“Now look at the water in this cup,” the tech instructed. The cup sat atop an oxygen regulator. As the chamber climbed in altitude and lost more and more earthly pressure, the water had begun to simmer like water in a tea kettle. “This is your blood if it’s exposed to low pressure at Flight Level Three-Nine-Oh. This is how you get the bends.”
I wrote into my notebook: Bubbles = bad.
Mask = good.
Bubbling blood = very bad.
I never tried to outlast anyone again.
For the next year of pilot training, I spun around in a centrifugal force machine to experience 7 G-forces. I learned how to parasail in case I needed to eject. I sat around the crud table at the O-Club, sharing horror stories about studs who crashed and burned before ever earning their wings.
Then I walked across the wooden floors of the base stage, lined with flags, and received my pilot wings. I smiled for my mother, my uncle, my sister, my brother.
I said it was easy. I lied.
Six years later, I arrived at Brooks AFB, Texas, for recurrent altitude chamber training—a necessity for all military flight aircrew. I arrived for one chamber flight. I’d long forgotten the warning signs of the bends. But I was about to be intimately reminded.
A dozen of us showed up, each carrying our flying helmets and not much else. We reported to the South Texas base as a matter of currency. Currencies weren’t monetary, but they might as well have been. Current meant you were cleared to fly, good to go. Non-current meant you couldn’t fly. So we watched our due dates like drivers eyeing oncoming traffic lights. The goal: remain in the green, as we called it.
As a pilot, I believed I could count on equipment because it could be empirically verified. Black and white measurements—I liked that. Equipment had to pass checks. Before flights, I always tested the mask attached to my helmet. A little blinker at the oxygen test station told me it worked. It flipped from white to black each time I took a breath. Hearing my respiration magnified, I found a comfort in the echo, lulling me, like the sound of the ocean in a conch shell.
It did not sound like something that could betray me.
Altitude chamber training meant a few days off the flight line, a road trip down to San Antonio, a day’s worth of extra pay, and an otherwise boring briefing for the dozen of us who showed up. We were all C-130 crew members assigned to fly out of Abilene, Texas, marked by a little-known Christian university and Dyess Air Force Base. Like so many things I did, I showed up to the altitude chamber as the only woman in my gaggle of recurrent trainees.
The techs who ran the chamber approached the training with grave attention. The aircrew approached the training with lackadaisical inattention. I was a Captain in my tenth year of military time, my sixth year as an officer. My mask, as usual, checked out.
And so with great confidence, I stepped into the altitude chamber.
I listened to the overly energetic Sergeant give safety briefings for thirty minutes. I stared out at the thick, triple-walled glass, wishing for another cup of coffee. What had, the first time, captivated my attention, I now found tedious, too familiar, repetitive. First, the bloated latex glove trick, then the bubbling water reveal, followed by a lecture on hypoxia. We heard the exact same script every time we had to get current. The only difference: after that first ride, we never played chicken with the breathing portion.
We were all required to spend a night on base after our chamber ride before heading home, just in case we started having symptoms of decompression sickness. Back in my temporary lodging, I stared at the emergency number on the card they’d issued to each of us. I was rapidly accumulating all the post-chamber symptoms: first the ache in my shoulder, then the jabbing pain in my knee, and finally a deep throb around my collarbone.
I called the number reluctantly. Reporting my symptoms felt like going against everything I tried to do in the Air Force—to fit in, blend in, not stand out.
To do things right. Perfectly.
Reporting back to the altitude chamber meant involving the highest in command on base. I arrived at the hyperbaric medicine building to a place already humming, just as when a fire station gets a call. The adrenaline was tangible. First, a battery of tests, all standard: blood pressure, heart, temperature. I talked with the tech, trying to understand how I could have the bends when I knew my mask was fine on the pre-flight.
“What about the blinkers?” I insisted. “They worked when I checked my helmet. My mask was good.”
It was as if I was pleading my case to a one-person jury. I had to make it known: This was not my fault. The hyperbaric medicine team would report back to my Commander the details of why I was not returning on time for my flight duty. It was a long night ahead. I wanted the record to be accurate. I wanted someone on my side to help me set the story straight.
I didn’t feel like a patient. I felt like a prisoner, jailed for a crime I didn’t commit. And deeper still, I feared I’d missed something. That it actually was my own screw-up. If my own mistake caused the bends, then all the scrutiny and extra pressure I lived under as a woman pilot—as wrong as it was—could feel justified to others. Or worse, to myself.
For years, I’d lived in fear of the constant second-guessing being correct. There were thick binders in the Pentagon, packed with reasons why women shouldn’t be allowed to fly the plane I did. I’d grown accustomed to things like peeing in Tupperware in-flight because my plane only had a urinal. As much as I tried not to internalize the scrutiny, sometimes my sense of self was worn down, as vulnerable as beach sand, pushed back into erosion by pounding, relentless ocean waves.
To my surprise, the tech didn’t seem to have the slightest bit of interest in cause or blame. To her, this was a medical procedure, and it had nothing to do with right and wrong. I was her patient, not a defendant on the stand.
“You’re about to enter a flammable environment. Highly flammable,” she repeated. “Any static electricity—any at all—can cause immediate catastrophic fire, so we need you to remove all your clothes, makeup, jewelry, and watch and then don this suit.”
When the Air Force uses the word don, it usually isn’t good. As in, “Don your chemical warfare mask” or “Don your parachute.”
I took the navy blue cotton suit, watched the privacy shroud envelope me, and started to undress. Time was of the essence. The ache in my joints. The rash spreading on my legs, my belly. My blood was literally bubbling, exactly like water in the demo.
The exactness and speed with which the assembled team got me into the decompression chamber was far from comforting. In the military, when there is precision, there is danger. And the greater the danger, the greater the need to meticulously follow protocols.
To cure my life-threatening diagnosis, I had to endure an equally life-threatening procedure: spending the night in 100% oxygen. It’s what blew up astronaut Gus Grissom, and to this day, certain countries, including Italy, don’t even allow hyperbaric chambers, due to the risk of fire. Several notable explosions killed everyone in the chamber. I was unaware of specific hyperbaric disasters, but it was clear the crew was not.
A few feet before entering the chamber, I stopped abruptly. I thought about one of the techs asking for my dog tags after the changing room. As he sealed them in a see-through bag, the tech smiled and said, “No metal.” Pausing near the chamber entry door, I looked at my escort and asked, “What about my bobby pins?”
As a military member, I was required to keep my hair in accordance with strict guidelines, which dictated the length, style, and angles of female hair. One paragraph in our guidebook was devoted solely to the process of pinning long hair up—color, accessories—and another paragraph detailed the parameters of bun and braids. I opted for the inverted French braid, taking time to ensure it “followed the contour of my head,” as specified, and appeared “tightly interwoven to present a neat, professional and well-groomed appearance.”
“What about my bobby pins?” I repeated.
“Oh jeez, yes, take them out,” the tech said. “Good catch—metal!”
I removed all six bobby pins used to hold me in regulation. With each one that slipped out, the thought came: Good catch? This is my life.
Without the pins, my hair hung loosely. I felt vulnerable being so visibly out of regulations. And as the braids unraveled, and the door locked behind me with a loud thud, I had the distinct sense of myself unraveling.
I looked around the chamber. It felt like being below deck. I’d grown up on a wooden sailboat, and here, as there, were narrow, blue seats lining the walls and a small black-and-white TV bolted to the ceiling. It played continuously. The Howdy Doody Show was on when I entered. The techs seemed very excited about this; if I watched the eight-inch TV, they said, it would help them meet their first goal—to keep me awake for the duration of my chamber ride. I had control of the stations, but there were only reruns of kids’ shows from the 1970s.
The hours passed. At 2:00 a.m., the Mickey Mouse Show came on. After that, Green Acres. They’d warned me that I might become paranoid in reaction to the nitrogen–oxygen and pressurized environment, or I could become slap-happy. At about 3:00 a.m., I knew which vector my tired body had taken; I couldn’t stop laughing. Everything was absurdly comical. The techs monitoring my vitals from behind portholes couldn’t keep a straight face when checking in with me. We all strived to maintain military bearing—a cornerstone of the profession of arms—but as the clock rounded the small hours, my laughter echoed against the chamber walls. Besides checking my vitals, the techs regularly ruled out the possible side effects of this treatment—lung collapse or seizures. All serious business. I laughed at it all like a drunken, uninhibited patron, curled up at the bar of nitrogen. They passed a dixie cup of water through a sealed exchange compartment, joining in my laughter like we were downing shots.
I wish I could say that I conjured laughter as a coping mechanism, as I had done so many times when training was arduous. This was something else, a chemical assault on my body and brain, but still, the humor helped me push the self-doubt and feeling of failure out of the forefront of my mind. To comfort myself, I remembered the little bit of reassuring information the tech had shared with me just before I entered the chamber.
“Sometimes,” she’d said, “masks just fail in flight. It happens. And sometimes, even with working masks, you get the bends.”
I laughed now at the sound of those words. This was the information I needed. I laughed and laughed and laughed. How easily it came to her, this technical approval that Yes, shit happens, and in this case, it could mean death.
At 4 a.m., I shuffled on the pasty chamber floors in my frictionless socks and stared up at Gilligan’s Island on the screen. Ginger and Mary-Ann, in black-and-white ball gowns, were having a faux argument while a rescue plane passed by the island; Gilligan had screwed up the radio once again. My laughter continued, but now it was coupled with a heightened release of inhibitions. I jettisoned any semblance of military decorum and talked too long when the techs checked in on me. I knew this—I could see it in their eyes and hear it in their chuckles at how childish I had become. And yet, I couldn’t lasso the words that kept spilling from my mouth, like water flowing from a thawing creek. In their eyes, a sympathy registered. My face ached with the weight of smiling—my cheeks felt stretched and sore. And a loneliness settled in the small part of my brain, witnessing it all like an archivist. Like the diarist the military had asked me to be, so long ago, during my first encounter with a hypobaric chamber.
I knew pressure as a life-sculpting force. For years I’d lived under it—pressure to excel, match up, defy stereotypes of my sex; pressure to survive the Academy, land a C-130 on a dirt strip, jump off a thirty-meter diving board; pressure to pass Survival Training, POW interrogation-training, vision tests, hearing tests, height tests. For years, I’d willingly accepted this constant pressure as the terms and conditions of being among the first women allowed to fly the C-130. Physical, emotional, spiritual pressure—I piled it on myself long before I contracted the bends.
As I sat in the chamber, I wondered how much I had come to rely on that pressure as a means for holding myself, for keeping the edges of myself from spilling out.
What is the cost, I wondered, of containing myself this way?
“We’re taking you down a little more, Captain,” the tech said. “How ya feelin’?”
I told him I was feeling great.
Years from that moment, I’d recognize that I longed not just for the healing power of pressure, but for the external container it provided—one that allowed me to carve a life trajectory out of its force, even as I felt gripped and pressed by the uniformity of its weight.
I looked out of the portholes at the techs recording my data on wooden clipboards. I watched them, watching me.
Laura Joyce-Hubbard is a Northwestern University MFA candidate. Her nonfiction and poetry appear or are forthcoming in Boulevard, Hippocampus Magazine, Stirling Literary Journal, Line of Advance Literary Journal, and the anthology, Our Best War Stories (Middle West Press, 2020). Recent awards include the 2020 Janecek Fellowship in Nonfiction from Ragdale Foundation and a 2020 NEA fellowship to attend the VCCA. Her essays and poetry have been awarded finalist recognition by The Iowa Review, Ruminate Magazine, and the Tucson Literary Book Festival. She’s currently working on a nonfiction manuscript about being one of the first women to pilot the C-130H in the US Air Force.