It’s been a strange week. My sister and I passed the coursework and pool portion for open-water scuba diving, my son turned 12, and my mother ended up in ICU. You can plan as much as you like, but oftentimes life happens — and not as you might have planned.
The rhythmic sound of the ventilator is comforting rather than frightening, as I had thought it would be. Its steady pace, much faster than my normal breathing rate, is soothing, possibly reminiscent of the maternal heartbeat that I heard in utero. As it works to fill my mother’s lungs with oxygen, her chest rises and falls.
One of the benefits of being in an ICU is the very personal care she receives from the nurses who work in 12-hour shifts. She was initially connected to more than nine drips; her IV lines were a web of connections held in place by a tongue depressor taped to the rail of the bed.
A mix of high tech and low tech.
She had been fine last Thursday night when my sister, my two children and I talked to her on the phone. Cheery and bright, she gave us updates on her week, sounded excited to hear about her grandchildren’s summer sailing camp adventures, and reminded my sister and me to stick together — as scuba buddies. The next afternoon, she was taken from the nursing home to the ER, where she was diagnosed with septic shock.
On Saturday, my sister and I flew from Miami to Atlanta to see her and to confer with her medical team. She was sedated — connected to a ventilator and to wires, tubes and alarms. The sight reminded us of the complexity of medical science.
Since then, she has improved. Doctors have weaned her off some of her medicines; the ventilator is at 50 percent rather than 100 percent oxygen; her head moves in response to familiar voices.
We appreciate every improvement, but know that every day is a new opportunity. As her doctor told us this weekend, every patient is his or her own case study. While studies may be able to tell us what an average response is, no patient is average, especially our mother. She survived uterine cancer when I was in middle school. Her goal at that point was to see both her daughters graduate from high school.
In 2005, long after we had graduated from college and married, she was diagnosed with aggressive colon cancer. After surgery and chemotherapy, she moved into a nursing home, then to assisted living and finally back home. Last year, she suffered a series of strokes and moved into a different nursing home — one close to her grandchildren. Unable to move or sit up when she arrived, she spent the first week moaning in bed. In the ensuing year, she worked hard in therapy and was able to sit up, use both hands and even play Wii golf.
My mother has been in ICU more times than I can remember. One of the most memorable visits occurred two years ago, when she was delirious. According to her, the doctors were all thespians and the ICU was a stage. When she called me in the middle of the night to get a new doctor, she declared that I was no help to her and she would call my sister. I encouraged her to do so.
When a crisis hits, as when someone you love suddenly becomes ill, your world gets reframed. If you go through enough crises, you begin to understand how important it is to surround yourself with people who have been through other crises. It helps to understand that you are not in control of either the pace or the outcome, and that often the best you can hope for is that you will be able to go through the crisis with just a bit of grace.
In my prayers, I am not asking for a particular outcome, but rather for God’s will to be done, and for him to give me his grace and his presence throughout the process.
Life is a journey. It is not easy, but you still have to keep living, even if it’s only one day at a time.