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When My Lung Collapsed, Being a Bartender Saved My Life

One day my lung was there, the next day it was gone—replaced by a sad, deflated balloon.

by Teddy Vuong
Sep 17 2016, 4:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Susanna Bolle

Being a bartender saved my life. Or at least it saved my lung. Boobs helped a lot, too.

I used to be a bartender in the Virgin Islands, on St. John. I went to work one day in the early evening after a night of hard partying and started to feel some back pains and couldn't really breathe, so I got sent home. The next day, I still couldn't breathe so I walked into town and ran into a customer who drove me to the clinic. The nurse couldn't figure out what was wrong with me, so she gave me an X-ray. She looked at it and said—exact words—"Holy shit. You're missing a lung."

I still don't know if it had anything to do with all the partying I had done up to that point, but one day my lung was there, the next day it was gone, replaced by a sad, deflated balloon.

It's called spontaneous pneumothorax. There was no hospital on St. John, so they put me on an ambulance boat and sent me off to the main island where they sliced me open, put a tube in me and reinflated my lung. I was in the hospital for five days. Of course, being in the restaurant industry, I had no health insurance, so the fee for the 5-day stay was $6,000, which is actually nothing, now that I think about it.

In St. John, there's literally nothing to spend your money on except going to bars. We'd party until 6 in the morning most nights of the week, wake up at 3 pm and go to work. Every night bartenders would make a shitload of money, then basically give their money to the other bartenders on the island. All the bartenders knew each other, and there was plenty of cash just being recycled every night, so on any given night people had plenty of cash to spend. But this was well before Kickstarter or GofundMe, or even Facebook (I didn't even have a cell phone). There was no social media to just make a video and ask people to click a button and donate. So we created an analog GoFundMe.

READ MORE: What It's Like As a Bartender to Watch Your Awkward Tinder Date

My roommate made T-Shirts with my face on the front and "Show Me Your Teddy" on the back (My name is Teddy), and we sold them at the bar. For the rest of the time I lived on St. John, literally everywhere I'd go, I'd see my face on someone else's chest. That was really fun. We sold a bunch of those, and our friends owned a putt-putt golf bar and so they let us host a tournament where a bunch of places donated prizes.

But the biggest moneymaker was "Titties for Teddy." After the tournament, we went to the bar down the street, which was notorious for everyone getting shitfaced and doing cocaine in the disgusting bathrooms. It's the bar where all the restaurant workers would go after work, so they let us have a free party there with local bands and sell raffle tickets—which we also sold at the restaurant I worked at.

A bunch of female bartenders and waitresses volunteered their boobs for me, and they called it "Titties for Teddy." So all night they sold raffle tickets and they would call out numbers throughout the night. If you had your number called, you could go into those same disgusting bathrooms with a girl of your choice and she would flash you her boobs. So that raised a ton of money, because people love boobs. And at the end of the night, the four or five girls who volunteered to do that, brought me into the bathroom and they all flashed me, which was really nice of them.

So over the course of the week, we raised $6 grand. I just had a pile of $1s, $5s, $10s, and $20s in a brown bag that was about eight inches high, and I got into the boat, went to the main island and just dropped the whole bag of cash on the table to pay for my medical bill.

Now, I was the full-time bartender at this restaurant that was probably considered the hippest restaurant in town. Everyone would stop by our bar and have a mojito or a glass of wine before they went out, so everyone knew me. I was, you could say, Virgin Islands famous. If it had been the guy who worked at the internet cafe or whatever, I don't think people would have really rallied around that person.

I guess, in a way, all that partying with all the other bartenders saved me. It also might have caused my accident in the first place, but I'll never really know.

For young people, there's a huge romanticism towards bartending, and justifiably so: you make a ton of money, you get a lot of attention, you get laid a lot, you are—for all practical purposes—a rockstar. And so, while yes, you generally don't get health insurance, having that kind of attention and fun is worth the tradeoff of being young, drunk, and on top of the world.

After the accident, I stayed there for another year and a half. Eventually, I was almost 30 with no real future, so I decided to go back to college to become a Graphic Designer. Health insurance started seeming more important, and so did something that resembled a career. Most of the people I knew left the Virgin Islands eventually, and I still see them often, and on occasion they'll be wearing their "Show Me Your Teddy" T-Shirt.

As told to Brad Cohen.

St. John
Virgin Islands