What don’t people know about surviving a stay in the ICU?
Healing does not happen in the hospital. Treatment happens in the hospital. All of the healing happens when you leave. You lose so much muscle mass in the hospital. You lose independence, and for me, even my sense of identity. I also worry a lot about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For years after my experience, I had nightmares where I was drowning. I had terrible, vivid re-experiences of events that, at the time, I didn’t name PTSD, but they probably were. It is almost incalculable, the losses and the process of rebuilding yourself. It really happens on the other side of the hospitalization. People need to rebuild their strength, gain a sense of independence, and find a way to understand what’s happened to them in the construct of their life story.
I hope that everyone has a lot of grace for themselves when they look at where they expect themselves to be when they go home versus where they really are. For me, I was in a pretty dark place, frustrated by everyone around me, unable to sleep with terrible nightmares, no appetite, no endurance. Everyone around me was saying, “Yay! You’re better,” and I was feeling like, “No! Not even a little!”
How have you been coping with the pandemic? Do you use any coping mechanisms you developed after your near-death experience?
I had spent a long time building up an armamentarium of all of the things that keep me well: mindfulness, meditation, and yoga. I also took up painting back when I had to stay in bed and didn’t really have the ability to write or read because my vision was really bad from a stroke. So I had this whole big toolkit of things I could do at home that worked for me, and then when this all started, all of those things seemed ridiculously luxurious, like, “Um. There is a pandemic! You can’t do yoga!”
In the first few weeks, I buckled down into this power-through mode the same way I would with a 36-hour call. I just got my scrubs on, packed my snacks, had my coffee, and didn’t look at the feelings. I put everything in a box and kept going. Then I noticed I was falling back on the “shortcuts” to relaxation, like the wine at night instead of a cup of tea and a book. The way I was caring for myself in those first few weeks was not sustainable.
I’ve made a transition in the last few weeks where I’m slowly building back in space for the things that are actually nurturing and healthy for me. I’ve brought back in poetry, reading, painting, and even yoga. The mindfulness exercises I do are mostly very simple ones with my son. We’ll name one thing each that we can see, hear, smell, and feel to ground ourselves in the moment. All of this has revealed to me that the things I rely on to stay well fluctuate depending on the situation.
What is your hope for the outcome of this crisis?
The worst thing that would happen is that we would get to the other side of this and not be changed by it. That would be such a wasted opportunity. I think what we are hopefully seeing is how profoundly interconnected we all are, that what affects people on one side of the world affects us, too, how integral this is to the wellbeing of our economy, how health care is a right that everyone should have access to that we can’t tie to employment, that essential workers should be paid a living wage, that community matters, that the people who will show up for you when you need them are everything. There is so much good that can come from this if we let ourselves really look it in the eye, but it is going to take some serious change.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.