The family needs Critical Care, too

After our exciting adventure to find St. Elizabeth’s, my father was admitted to the Critical Care Unit (CCU). In the CCU, the ratio of nurses to patients is much higher than on a medical ward and constant monitoring is the norm. Having Dad in a bed in the CCU was both comforting and distressing. His suspected (and subsequently confirmed) ailment was a progressive syndrome that, unchecked, could shut down critical systems, so close scrutiny was in order, but from his curtained cubicle I could hear someone imploring, “Wake up, dad, please, you have to wake up.”

When my father was wheeled off for a test at 10:30am the next morning, I was ushered out of his cubicle and into the waiting room for families of CCU patients. The room was large, with chairs and loveseats ringing the perimeter. High on one wall was an over-sized, flat-screen television. The volume was up, but the only other occupant of the room was engrossed in her iPhone.

“Do you mind?” I asked as I walked over and reached up to turn the volume down.

She looked up briefly and responded listlessly, “No.”

In silence we shared the room, until her three siblings came in and began to confer about their father’s situation. Champion eavesdropper that I am, I was actually trying not to listen, but it was difficult to tune out their conversation. I surmised that their father had been brought in with difficulty breathing and was now in a coma. I regretted, for their sake, that I had turned off the TV.

Later that day, finding myself alone again with the original woman, I asked for advice on parking at St. E’s. We started to talk and share our stories. Then I began to suffer a version of “survivor’s guilt.” I had been assured that my father would make a complete recovery, and my new friend was being told that her father’s prognosis was uncertain at best.

The next day, the siblings were distraught. They had had a tough morning with a nurse who had been brusque and discouraging about their father.

“Don’t lose hope,” I said. “There are plenty of things that medical science hasn’t figured out yet. He could wake up any time. They just don’t know.”  I spoke with as much authority as I could muster given that I didn’t have a clue what science had or had not figured out. I just wanted them to feel better.

I went on, “I’ve heard that doctors don’t really know if a person in a coma can hear. I think you should assume he can; play his favorite music for him, talk to him. Tell him what’s going on in your lives, share memories of special times with him. If he can hear, maybe it will help coax him back, and if he can’t, you might feel better for having shared with him how much he’s meant to you and how much you love him.”

I fought to keep my voice from breaking while I was talking to them, surprised by the force of my emotion. I was directing my comments to the siblings, but I was talking to myself.

Not long after that conversation, while I was in my father’s cubicle, I heard the sisters talking to their father. They were telling him stories and playing Frank Sinatra music. I know it helped them. I hope it helped him.

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13 responses to “The family needs Critical Care, too

  1. I have a friend who went through a time fighting brain cancer. She wrote a blog about her inner feelings as her journey went along. At one point she wrote about how she would find herself in a situation at a certain time, and, if she paid attention to what was happening, it seemed as though her being there was an opportunity for her to offer some sort of assistance. There is some explanation and religious lesson in her blog that is very inspirational. I wish I could relay it better to you, but I am neither a very good writer nor very good at interpreting the teachings of the Torah. But I can tell my twist on all of this: you were at a certain place at a certain time, and even though you were suffering with your own pain you were able to reach out and offer comfort to someone else. That makes your life and everyone around you a blessing. I wish you and your family the best. Thanks for blogging.

  2. The medical profession is realizing the importance of taking care of family members more and more. The family is of no use to the patient if they are too stressed. Its important for caregivers to take care of themselves as well as the patient. I hope your father continues to improve and your family does well with all of this.

  3. Such a kind thing you did. Good for you, Judy. And for the record, I absolutely believe that people in a coma can hear what’s being said.

    Sending positive thoughts and energy for you and your family.

  4. As a fairly recent coma dweller, I can tell you that those in a coma can indeed hear things from time to time. I distinctly heard two friends talking to me, telling me where I was and that things were going to be OK (and in fact this conversation actually took place). Alas, I heard not one word that my devoted partner said to me over the entire 11 days that she sat by my side, except evidently when I rallied enough to tell her to stop talking to me “in that insipid tone.” At least then she knew that I had not suffered complete brain melt down. So keep up the good work, Judy. Family members need to know the status of things.

  5. You have the compassion I always knew of you! You are a wonderful human being Judy! Mom Mom is not well. We have been going through a tough time of “:end of life” and it’s one of the toughest things I’ve experiences – now for a second time (the first with my dad when he suffered his stroke that took his life). My thoughts are with you and your family. Keep on keepin’ on – and pass the words! XO

  6. Grace Benveniste

    Just went through the ICU thing with my dad a few months ago. It sucks as do all hospital stays for the elderly. I could write a whole blog just on watching his numbers on those monitors all day….kind of had my own version of ICU psychosis. I hope your dad is better soon.

  7. I’m not in a coma and I hear what you say- and i love you for it

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