Things I learned in the ICU

Rick Hosp 1
(Please ignore the bogus date on this picture. Do you know anyone whose camera dates their photos correctly?)

In early 2009, my husband became suddenly and dangerously ill.  He was 41, in perfect health, and the father of three kids, aged 6 months to 2.5 years.  In what we think turned out to be Swine Flu (also known as H1N1), he found himself fighting for his very life.  He ended up spending 54 days in the hospital, most of them in the intensive care unit on a ventilator, a month in in-patient rehab afterwards, and several months in out-patient rehab after that.  Needless to say, this period was life changing for me, as well, and I learned quite a lot…on a number of topics.  In no particular order, here are a few of the things I gleaned during those harrowing days:

  • A trashy, gossip magazine can be a balm to the soul.  Seriously.  Disdain not The Ministry of the Well-timed Entertainment Weekly, friends.  Or the pastoral care offered by Sports Illustrated.  The day after my husband was admitted to the hospital and we were beginning to understand that this was serious, I called a new friend from his bedside phone.  We had only moved to the area 8 months before, but I had a starting-to-bud friendship with a neighbor and fellow grad student wife.  Sensing that she was the kind of person who would jump in with comfort and aid, I called her and started crying on the phone.  Within an hour, she had come to the hospital, found us in the maze of the radiology wing where Rick was getting his lungs examined, and handed me a care package of trail mix, instant Korean coffee, and several People magazines.  This was perfectly done.  There is not one improvement I could suggest to my friend’s care for me that day.

  • What matters is not that you have the exact right thing to say, but that you show up and maybe that you bring some small item of comfort.  I have observed since The Illness, as Rick and I now refer to our ordeal in 2009, that many people hesitate to contact someone struggling with illness or trauma because they simply do not know what to say or they fear saying the wrong thing.  Take the pressure off yourself — you are not going to come up with a verbal nugget so awesome that it can fix the situation (which is, at some level, what you are wishing for) or a morsel of wisdom so profound that it reverberates in your friend’s mind for days, splashing deep, repeating waves of comfort onto the shores of their heart.  Just give up that dream, friends.  If you are afraid of saying the wrong thing, just play it safe and say little.  Acknowledge the situation (“I am so sorry this is happening”), ask one question to gauge how much the person wants to talk (“How are you doing?”), ask for medical information to see if they want to talk about the medical situation (“So what are the doctors saying is going on?”).  And from there, just see where your friend takes it.  Follow their lead.
  • Do not be afraid to make a joke.  If the person you are visiting generally has a good sense of humor, then assume it is still intact and look around for something funny.  Humor and laughter are seriously helpful in almost all medical situations, even the most serious.  This may be particularly true for me, a person who lives for a good laugh, but I find hospital settings to be ripe for jokes.  My mom, who was my faithful companion every day at Rick’s bedside, and I laughed over one thing or another every single one of the 54 days my husband spent hospitalized.  On the morning Rick was first intubated (i.e. put on the ventilator), I was blessed to also have a couple close friends in town.  At my request, they had brought the newest People magazine (yes, yes, I have never been so up-to-date on celebrity news as I was that Spring) which was a Then and Now issue showing childhood and current pictures of famous people.  My friend, Julie, quipped as she handed me the magazine, “Because sometimes a picture of Brad Pitt in 3rd grade is just what ya need!”  And this was within the same hour that she had to hold my hand as I walked back into Rick’s room to see him unconscious and on the ventilator for the first time, very aware that I might never seem him conscious again.
  • Nurses make the world go ’round.  There is no limit to my respect for nurses, the work horses of the medical community.  In addition to having command of a large body of scientific knowledge, they do the majority of the physical labor involved in patient care.  (And don’t even get me started on the orderlies who often do the dirtiest, yuckiest of the work.)  Nurses also interact extensively with the family and end up being the most available to answer questions.  And in a critical care setting like an ICU, nurses are charged with not only the physical practicalities of care, but also with assessing danger.  It was a nurse who made the call that my husband was simply not maintaining his oxygen levels well enough with the CPAP mask and instead needed to be intubated immediately.  It was a nurse who decided I was still bleeding too much 24 hours after my twins were born and intervention was needed.

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These are some of the nurses who walked with us all the way through our hospital stay.  They came to say good-bye the day Rick was finally discharged and transported to a rehab facility.
  • Male nurses are a special and lovely breed of people, worthy of great honor.  ICUs tend to have many male nurses. I have honestly never met one I didn’t like.  Words cannot express my admiration for these men who ignore societal assumptions about masculinity and instead embrace nursing, men who have a perfect blend of a scientific mind, strong arms and back, a willingness to work hard and a compassionate love for humanity.
  • I love doctors, too.  We were blessed with an array of very experienced, personable, and engaged critical care physicians.  In almost all cases, I deeply trusted their wisdom, their instincts, and their commitment to my husband’s life.  Despite the rumors you hear, in most specialities, doctors are not in it for the money or the prestige.  They have trained long and hard at great personal expense to be able to truly help sick people.  They do not know everything and they are not perfect, but they are working hard and they want the best for their patients.  This is not something I ever doubted, but I mention it because doctors are very often held in suspicion these days.  On Rick’s darkest days, several of his doctors stayed way past the end of their shifts to keep monitoring him.
  • There is no better place to learn patience than in a hospital.  Except perhaps in a life full of small children.  Despite what you see on TV, almost nothing in a hospital happens quickly.  When a doctor or nurse says “We’re going to test such and such right away” or “We’ll get those results quickly,” what they mean is “This is going to happen within one or two business days.”  No need to wait in the room;  you always have time to get coffee or go to the cafeteria before such and such happens.  There are many reasons for the molasses-pace of hospitals (e.g. hospitals are large and very complex organisms, there are many steps involved in everything, the red tape is extensive and ever increasing, scientific tests often take real time, etc.), but the bottom line is that if you want to get your patience on, find yourself a hospitalized person and start hanging out with them.
  • The Ministry of the Casserole is a powerful one.  During Rick’s hospital stay, my friends organized dinner drop-offs for me almost every day and my parents’ friends organized meal deliveries for them as they were caring for our twins for weeks on end.  In addition to providing us with healthy and tasty food, it strengthened our hearts to know that there were friends who were engaged with us in our trauma.  We did not feel alone.   Casserole ministry can be applied beyond families with new babies and sick friends, too.  I have delivered them to friends going through divorces and deaths in the family.  It is not just about providing food to eat, but also about saying “I see you.  You are suffering.  I care.  So I made this warm, tasty thing for you.  Take, eat.”
  • Middle-of-the-night prayer is very important.  We had friends praying for Rick throughout the night during the most dangerous times of his illness, some at our request and some unprompted.  A friend of a friend whose son had battled leukemia for 3 years said to me later, “I have seen enough to know that when you are awake in the middle of the night for no good reason, it is because there is someone you are supposed to be praying for.”  I have taken this hard-won wisdom to heart and have made a habit of praying when I find myself unaccountably awake in the night.  Sleeplessness is not usually a problem for me, and so when I find myself unable to sleep, I routinely search my mind for whom I know that is currently facing health issues or other significant challenges.  Then I just start praying.  Eventually, of course, I drift off to sleep, but not before getting some good, though mysterious, work done in the heavenlies.  I once endured 6 weeks of sleeplessness that I eventually concluded was because I was supposed to support a former colleague in prayer as he made his way toward death from brain cancer.  That was my assignment, and I am assuming that someone else was assigned to accompany his family in prayer as they began their new lives in the days following his death.
  • Rick’s dirty socks strewn around the house will always bother me.  As much as an ordeal like ours helps you to get many things in perspective, it does not endow you with a new superpower of never becoming annoyed.  It is true that not a week goes by without me thanking God that my husband is alive or thinking about what life would be like for my kids and me if he weren’t.  It is also true that despite this, it is impossible to live every moment in a state of blissful gratefulness for every aspect of our life together.  I may have sat by what I feared was going to be his deathbed, but, you know what, I still wish that he would remember on his own to take out the trash and recycling bins every Wednesday.
  • Hospitals are very lonely, quiet places on the weekends.  And on holidays.  Because there were far fewer staff and little activity,  the reality of our dire situation would hit me freshly and deeply on Saturdays and Sundays.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I was always glad when Monday came.  Or when a visitor showed up.
  • People who visit you in the hospital are never forgotten.  You should always call or text ahead and ask if a visit is desired, but if the answer is yes, then go!  It will undoubtedly feel awkward for you, but you can be sure that it will bless the heart of your friend(s).  Rick could rarely engage socially, but I have not forgotten one single visitor who made the effort to come see us in the ICU.  Or one single small gift brought (bagels, a good novel, a pack of gum).  And you can believe that I have a deep loyalty to each person who crossed that threshold.  Many of them were hardly more than acquaintances, but by coming to see us in that difficult setting on our darkest days, they guaranteed my lifelong commitment to them.
  • God is just as faithful and Jesus is just as delightful as I always believed.  He promised me that when I walked through the waters, they would not sweep over me and when I walked through the fire, I would not be burned.  He made good on this promise in hundreds of small and large ways.  And I do not say this because Rick recovered and lived.  I say this because our daily needs, both physical and emotional, were met in abundance.  There was companionship, there was humor, there were warm meals, there were fun surprises, there was babysitting, there were physical gifts, there were out-of-town visits from dear friends, there were 3 AM prayers offered on our behalf, there were warrior angels guarding Rick’s life during the most dangerous hours (spotted by a friend), there were new friends who brought new help, there was a deep, abiding sense that though my husband might not make it, my God would not desert me.  And nor would His people.
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This little moment occurred between two of my kids one afternoon in Rick’s ICU room. No matter the situation, I believe there are always blessings to be found. Always.

© Laura Goetsch and goetschblog, 2014.

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6 thoughts on “Things I learned in the ICU

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