by Christopher Graham
Your perception of time changes greatly in the ICU. It’s very, very easy to get disoriented. You’ve just been through one of the most physiologically stressful things your body has ever experienced. You’re in an unfamiliar room with tons of lines, tubes, and monitors hooked up to you, in just barely manageable pain, and you’re hopped up on a bunch of heavy duty opioid pain killers. So your brain is just a little off.
It’s so common to get disoriented and have hallucinations in the ICU that there’s actually a highly unoriginal name for it: ICU psychosis. One of the things they say keeps people oriented in the ICU is knowing when it’s day or night. You would think that would be incredibly self-evident, but in the ICU it’s really not. The blinds are usually closed, even when your doctors write orders to have them opened during the day, and the room looks the same pretty much all the time. Every time my nurses came in, I would ask them what time it was and whether it was morning or night. I’m not sure if that really helped me stay lucid or not, but more often than not, I was wrong either about the time, whether it was day or night, or both. The hallucinations didn’t really start until I went into renal failure, but we’ll get to that part here shortly.
I do remember a few specific events from being in the ICU. I haven’t told anyone about some of these, not even my wife. But part of what I want to do with my writing is give you a completely honest and transparent account of everything that happened. I want to include all the parts that are embarrassing, and all the parts that bring back awful memories and feelings. I want to tell you about the feelings I had, both good and bad, and even the ones I’m ashamed to admit I have. Because that’s what I went through. These are the kinds of things that I think all patients go through. Perhaps not to the same extent or degree, but the loss of personal dignity suffered is no less significant for people who have spent any substantial amount of time in medical treatment. It’s times like that when the slightest bit of empathy from your nurses, or your doctors, means much more than just whatever their small act of kindness was.
A few days into the ICU stay, I was starting to feel pretty gross, quite frankly. I was uncomfortable and in pain at baseline. I hadn’t showered in almost 3 or 4 days at that point, and between the lack of basic hygiene and lying there in bed all day, I just felt grimy and unclean. One of the nurses could tell I was uncomfortable and asked me if I wanted a sponge bath. Even though I felt completely disgusting, and really did want to get cleaned up, I shook my head no. Are you kidding me? I’m a grown adult, at the age of 32, and a nurse who’s my age or younger is asking me if I want a sponge bath? No way in hell. Way too embarrassing. Way too personal.
She didn’t make a big deal about it, but I think she could tell that I was embarrassed. And, that my stupid pride was the real reason I said no. I mean, I could barely get out of bed at that point. I was in no condition to take care of myself. I mulled this fact over in my head for a while, maybe an hour or two, and then I finally caved and hit the call button. It was time to admit that I needed some help.
And so she helped me get cleaned up. By “helped,” I mean that she did all the work, while I lay there, passively, and tried to not think too hard about what was happening. I think she could tell by the look on my face that I felt completely exposed and, truthfully, humiliated. But, it was the look on her face that finally set me at ease. It was one of concern, and worry. Of understanding, and compassion. In a word, it was the look of empathy. I don’t remember much from the ICU, at least not many of the specifics, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on her face. She was genuinely and honestly worried about me. And she barely knew me. That small, almost trivially small, moment of sympathy and understanding was enormously meaningful to me. It was nice to know that I was more than just some patient to her. She still saw the human being underneath all of that.
Continue reading in the next installment by Christopher Graham here: Chapter 3 | Part 3: The Single Worst Physical Experience
Read the previous installment by Christopher Graham here: Chapter 3 | Part 1: Waking Up in the ICU