Spent most of last week in ICU – it was a salutary experience in some ways though rather stressful in others. I wasn’t the patient (which helps I suppose). My husband, Richard, had been struggling all weekend with a sore leg – he was officiating at a wedding at the time the leg got really painful, which is not the most convenient of times to have a health meltdown – I mean, you really don’t want to ruin someone’s Big Day. The next morning the leg was no better, so we wrestled with the challenge of how-serious-is-this-enough-to-warrant-the-emergency-room-on-a-Sunday? In the end sense won out over sensibility and he waited until Monday morning to present himself at the doctor’s rooms. The doctor was concerned but calm – no need to panic, but we’ll check it out just in case. On Tuesday morning I was concentrating hard on my breathing (Pilates class – I don’t normally have to concentrate to breathe) when I opened my eyes to find the receptionist’s face about a foot away from mine – your husband’s on the phone. My cell-phone was in the locker, the class is only an hour long: that said it all. I have a clot in my leg, can you take me to the hospital – now.
Now you are probably wondering why he hadn’t stayed at the hospital where they did the scan – I was. But you have to understand the politics of choice – if he got admitted through Casualty there was no choice of the doctor he would see, so the GP allowed him to ride his motorbike home (yes, he had arrived for the scan on a motorbike!) while he fixed up admission through the Specialist Physician. It did mean a painful wait in the reception while we filled out the forms and an even more painful wait on the ward while the nurse took a seemingly irrelevant medical history Are you pregnant? (Seriously!) What did you say you were admitted for? This is actually an emergency, please can you quit the questions and call the doctor? The doctor, when he arrived, was an embodiment of professional reassurance – yes, you do have several clots, but it’s not a crisis, we are going to thin your blood to make sure you don’t get any more and just keep an eye on things until things stabilize – your own body will eventually wear away the original clot over the next few months. All fine then. The cough? We’ll do a CT scan of the lungs – just in case. That’s how I left things. Around 6.30pm I got an sms: CT found spots of embolism damage on lungs, moving me to High Care later, feeling the same, no reason to change evening plans.
So, at 11 o’clock the following morning when I sneaked into High Care with his favourite double-shot cappuccino (no official visiting until 3pm) – I thought things would look more or less the same. When I got there, I discovered that the whole world had shifted. My lean, muscular, gym-fit husband had been tethered to the bed by the full compliment of electronic surveillance devices. A saline drip was keeping the veins open, a nose tube administered oxygen while the finger peg monitored its saturation and the blood-pressure cuff had been inflating every 20 minutes throughout the night. It was impossible for him to move (or sleep- very frustrating!) If he wanted the bathroom he had to call the nurse to unhook him and wheel him the 3 metres across the ward – he was not allowed to set foot on the floor. My tower of strength had been rendered frail by implication – he wasn’t ill in any normal sense of the word, but he was defined critical risk by an invisible threat lurking in his veins.
I forgot to explain that High Care is actually part of ICU – it’s one big ward that never sleeps; the lights are never dimmed; the alarms never cease; the patients are merely segregated by the extent of nursing care they require. It functions on High Alert 24/7 and occasionally rises to Calm Frenzy when the big sirens announce that someone has ‘coded’ and all hands converge on the same deck, paddles flailing. It is a place for the very sick and completely comatose. It is not a good place for the wide-awake and I was feeling quite fine and healthy until I got here. Don’t get me wrong, I was extremely grateful for the high-tech equipment. It safeguarded my nearest and dearest – who had it transpired, been a walking time bomb for six weeks since he got off his fourth long-haul flight in three weeks. He had arrived home with a pain in his leg that had disappeared after two days and had turned into a relentless cough (evidence of the first embolism that had miraculously passed through his lungs without causing major damage.) I comforted myself with the knowledge that the worst had almost certainly passed through what I ascribe to divine intervention. God loves him. God kept him safe when we had no idea of the danger he was in. It seemed like unbelief to pray fervently now for his safety when God had already answered the prayer even before I prayed it.
But it was nevertheless very stressful to see the person you care most about in the world rendered fragile by the psychological trauma of being tied to a set of tubes in case he attempted to die suddenly. The curious thing was that I was no stranger to ICU – through various circumstances I have visited almost every ward in our new local hospital that has been open less than a year. In every other case I was the supportive friend or the praying pastor – one who brings hope and comfort to others who are drowning. The nurses had gotten to know me – they let me in outside of visiting hours – they even gave me access to the critically ill. Somehow it all changes when you lose that professional detachment. You start to monitor your own heart – what do I feel and what do I need and what do I really believe? The most overwhelming feeling was that of being alone – perhaps his existential crisis had become mine. Or maybe I was just sensing the vibe of the ICU – a dozen or more seriously ill patients with their fearful families – the anxiety in the air is almost palpable. The most supportive thing you can do in such an environment is to hold someone’s hand and communicate that you are not afraid. Love overcomes fear. It helps to have been lovers long enough that words are no longer necessary to persuade.
So we sat and held hands – and giggled from time to time when we saw the funny side of things (yes, the rest of the ward probably did think we were crazy – perhaps we were, but joy also is a powerful antidote to fear.) A few days later our crisis had passed and we were given the all-clear to go home. But the next time I found myself back in there (a few days later at the bedside of another friend who was sick, disoriented and wide-eyed with fear) I found that my perspective had changed. I had no doubt what to say: you are going to come through this, I know it doesn’t feel like it, I know you are afraid but it’s going to be okay. Before I had been there I would have been reluctant to make promises I couldn’t keep. Now I know that you don’t just monitor the heart, you speak to it. You tell it peace, be calm. Everything will be alright in the end.