Three years ago today I was critically ill in an intensive care unit. Somehow I contracted severe pneumonia even though I’d been fit and healthy and chasing around after three very young children. A persistent cough (which I’d seen the doctor about) suddenly became much worse.
The experience taught me that we all walk a fine line between life running normally and things going very wrong. It reminded me that those humdrum ordinary routine days are quite special after all. When I was very poorly I prayed for ordinariness where I could look after my children and do normal things again. Thankfully those days returned but I was in hospital with people who were too ill to ever lead a healthy life. It brought home to me how lucky I was to be able to make a full recovery.
Three years on, I sometimes forget to be thankful and get worked up about the small irrelevant stuff in life. But then I remind myself how helpless and frightened I was when I was seriously ill and that’s when everything resumes its proper focus again.
This isn’t a work of fiction because it actually happened, but it’s writing: )
I’m wearing an oxygen mask and struggling to breath. My lungs feel like broken rocks in my chest. My heart is pounding like the hooves of a galloping horse. People surround me, they put needles and wires in my arms and ask me questions. When did I start to feel unwell? Where is the pain? Can I rank the pain on a scale of 1 to 10?
I tell them 9, with 10 being childbirth. The pain is in my shoulders, back and chest. It’s excruciating, I can’t lie down. I sit propped up in a bed with machines beeping around me in the semi-dark. I can’t move. My brain is on fire. I can feel the heat and hear the crackling of flames raging through my head. Around me I see little statues made out of wire: animals, a ballet dancer. I see faces. They’re on machines and boxes. Cats dart underneath my bed and the curtains. I can see one of my own cats curled up on the floor nearby. Nice of him to visit me in my hour of need.
I know I was taken to intensive care at midnight because there’s a clock above my bed. By 4am I want some peace, they let me rest for a bit. An hour later a tight mask is put onto my face to force oxygen into my lungs. It’s like being strapped to a wind tunnel. I panic, I’m told to try and relax, it will only be on for an hour while air is pumped into me. I’m told I may have to be sedated and ventilated to let my lungs heal but they’ll see how I get on. A feeding tube is pushed up my nose, it reaches the back of my throat and I gag. It coils up at the back of my throat so it’s pulled out again. Luckily I escape the tube.
The next day things are calmer. I still can’t move, but I can cough. I have to cough. My lungs are full of brown sludge and I need to cough it all out. I’m given a suction tube to help take all the gunk away. For the next few days I sip water, cough up sludge and take small naps. My temperature soars up and down as I fight the infection. It’s impossible to sleep properly. Sometimes my body sleeps but my burnt out mind refuses. I can hear everything going on around me but I can’t move or respond.
My husband, mum and sister visit. Their familiar faces are a lifeline to me in a world of medical equipment where there’s no daylight. There’s little difference between night and day. One day I’m told there’s a general strike. Another day I’m told Advent has started. It all seems like another world. I try my hardest not to think about the children.
I’m vaguely aware of other patients around me. I hear them cry out in pain and fear. I hear patients fitting and vomiting. I hear someone being resusciated. One afternoon someone dies. Being in this place reminds me how poorly I am.
But I’m lucky being in this place. Had I lived at another time or in another country I wouldn’t have made it. I’m getting the best medical care possible and although I’m scared I know I’ll be okay.
At the end of the week I’m transferred to a high dependency ward. My time in intensive care is over. I still need an oxygen mask, I’m still bedbound and I’ve lost so much weight I can see my bones through my skin. But I’m on the long road to recovery. I feel slightly better each day. And as my bed is put next to a window I’m overjoyed to be able to see the metallic grey December sky.
First published on Babyrambles blog, 14th December 2011