Too Close for Comfort in the ICU

Don’t Wait for an ICU Visit

I leaned in close as Pedro struggled to form words around the tubes sprouting out of his nose and mouth. His hands, retained by cotton cuffs, fluttered uselessly at his sides. His left hand stilled and his right hand looked as if it was writing on a tablet of air.

The lymphoma cells froze Pedro's face and prevented him from swallowing.

The lymphoma cells froze Pedro’s face and prevented him from swallowing.

“Can someone PLEASE give me a pen and a piece of paper,” I called out. My voice sounded harsh and desperate in the quiet bustle of the ICU room, and I noticed that Pedro’s heart rate had increased.  I tried again, this time willing my vocal cords to form the words carefully. “I think he wants to say something, but he can’t talk. He wants to write something.”

The ICU nurses looked at each other and shrugged. One dug in her scrubs and produced a black sharpie, and another found a few sheets of blank paper and a clipboard.

“We’ll be back in five minutes,” the first nurse said when she finished untying the restraints. “Don’t let him pull the tubes out.”

“You’ll need to leave when we come back,” the second nurse added. “We have to do our work and family isn’t allowed in the room at that time.”

Would His Scribbles Hold Up in a Court?

A patch covered one of Pedro’s eyes, and the other only opened half way. The lymphoma cells had attached themselves to his facial muscles—freezing them into unresponsiveness.

When I had left for Montana a week ago, he’d been fine. In pain, but ready to start radiation. When I returned, he could no longer clear his throat on his own and had been moved into the ICU.

“It might be a good idea for your daughters to visit.” The doctor’s vague words rang in my head. Death moved closer. I shivered and handed the pen to Pedro and braced the clipboard against the bedrail so he could write.

Each letter wobbled and skidded across the page in thick black lines. When he finished, the pen dropped from his exhausted hand. I turned the clipboard towards me and read his words.

I closed my eyes and thought unthinkable thoughts.  Would this hold up in a court of law as a living will?  We’d never made one–after all, old people need things like that–not healthy people in their thirties.

“I won’t,” I promised, having no idea if I’d be able to keep my word. I squeezed Pedro’s hand and checked the monitors.  His heart rate had dropped back down to normal.

The nurses hurried back into the room, ready to complete their duties and start the propofol drip that would sink Pedro back into a coma until the following day, when they would bring him out of the coma again for a few short minutes of lucidity.

“I love you!” I whispered,  hugging the paper to me as I left the room. I had travel arrangements to make for the girls and my parents (more on the story here).

 

 

Anita currently teaches English to 7th-12th graders. She describes herself as a 'recovering cancer caregiver' who gives thanks daily that her husband has been cancer-free for ten years.

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