“Good news! You’ve improved enough that we’ll be able to release you later today.”. Those sweet, sweet words are the very words you and your family hoped and prayed to hear, but worried might never come to fruition. Your double vaccinations have done their job. It’s the best news you’ve heard since testing positive for COVID-19. *You* will be one of the lucky ones who will get to go home after being hospitalized for the deadly disease. Let’s face it—there’s no place like home, especially when you’ve suffered an illness or been away from your abode for an extended period of time. Suddenly, a staycation sounds really, really good.
As the day wears on, you anticipate packing up your things and walking out the door where fresh air will breath new life into your tired lungs. Your family is ecstatic about your recovery since none of them have been able to visit you while in care. You silently wondered if you would ever get to see their faces again, but all of that terror is behind you now. Your body has fought a good fight and you are going to make it!
The nurse comes in to check your vitals and she pauses. Something seems off, you can feel it. She notices that your oxygen level has dropped a bit. Must be just a COVID blip, but certainly something to keep an eye on. Your heart beats a bit faster as worry sets in again, but then your mind re-assures you that “… (they’ll) be able to release you later today.”. You promise yourself right then and there that you will follow the doctor’s at-home orders to a Tee. You will take whatever medications they prescribe and rest as much as you can, so that you can get back to living life with a much greater appreciation than you’ve ever had before. A pang of guilt comes over you as you think about the other patients who would love to be the recipient of your good news… your good fortune.
Another oxygen check a bit later determines that it would be best for you to stay put for the night… just in case. While feeling highly disappointed about not being able to hug your loved ones and sleep in your own bed that night, you’re grateful that the nurses and doctors are watching out for you. One can never be too careful in situations like these. You reluctantly call your wife to let her know that the hospital staff are just being extra cautious and that you’ll call her in the morning with a time when she can come and pick you up. Your muscles tense up as you speak, but you try to disregard the question mark that seems to be resonating throughout your limbs.
The next morning, it becomes clear that you’ve taken a turn for the worse. Your levels continue to drop and you can see the concern on your nurse’s face. It’s not good. She sits down to tell you the news. You won’t be going home. Yet. Meanwhile, your nurse seeks advice from her other colleagues only to learn that the third wave doesn’t buy patients much time when things take a turn for the worse. “It’s not like the first and second waves—when they turn, it’s ICU within 24 to 48 hours, so watch them carefully.”. Exactly what she dreaded hearing. She’d been in the pre-COVID ward until this weekend, so she wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of timelines. This is going to be even worse than she thought.
By evening time, the word ICU has been dropped your way a couple of times. What?! How can this be happening? I was going home! Please God, I just want to go home. Please keep me safe. You’ve never prayed more in your whole life. Your little one is waiting for you to walk through the door. You just have to get home. Please. But, it’s getting harder and harder to breathe. Little do you know that you are the second patient that your nurse will have to send to ICU since being on the clock yesterday.
The doctor in charge of the COVID unit shrugs his shoulders when the nurse tells him what is going on. Again, he thinks. The look of defeat on his face transfers to the nurse. She gets it now. Reality sinks in. This is what the other nurses have been talking about for over a year. ICU is the end of the line care and percentages of death after being intubated have varied from 12% to 39% in past waves of the disease (according to the ICNARC) with this wave appearing to hit harder and faster. She knows it and deep down, those individuals, those loved ones, whose worst fears have been realized know it too. Just the same, she puts on a brave face. She cares about him and the other gentleman too. What did I do wrong? I should have, would have, could have… The nurse begins to question her every move from the start of her shift onward. How could two of mine be in this kind of shape already?!
The following morning, the decision is made. ICU it is! The “Good news…” statement from less than 48 hours ago resounds. The echo is deafening. In an hour or two, you are told that you will be rolled into the room where last-ditch, life-saving measures can and will be taken, if necessary. There, a machine waits to take over if your lungs can no longer deliver enough oxygen to your body. You can feel your body straining to do its job, but your mind is in overdrive with endless thoughts of your loved ones—what was, what is…what will/will not be. You would do ANYTHING to spare them the pain. Anything.
The nurse makes a decision and leaves the room giving your disbelief a chance to settle in. This is it. The culmination of your life lived lies in the hands of others with the possibility of tubes and an over-worked ventilation machine becoming more and more real. You may well die and become another statistic of a deadly pandemic that many people deny even exists. Would it do any good to let out the blood-curdling scream that first began bubbling in your toes? Nothing comes out of your mouth when you try. You are too tired and too weak, yet so vividly awake and aware. That kind of vividness must be the beginning of death. Death is indeed on your doorstep. An Easter dinner shared together first invited its darkness in. It was the one and only small gathering you’ve had in well over a year. That was two weeks ago now, but it seems like forever.
The nurse returns, “Sir, I think it would be best if you spoke with your wife now.”. Reaching for the phone, she continues, “You should know that it could be the last call that you will have with your loved ones.”. You begin profusely sweating. What will I say? How can I tell her? What about our son? His future? Their future without me? Tears well in your eyes as you try to keep it together. For her, for them. You have to, it could be your last conversation with her, with them. Ever. The nurse even told you so despite your pretending not to hear her.
You have said your good-byes. It was a surreal hour of crying, reminiscing, loving and advising. You begin to question: Did I tell her everything I wanted to? Does she know how much I love her and our son? You feel grateful for the short time that you’ve all had together, but it’s not enough. It’s simply not enough. Will they be okay? What will happen to me if I die? Am I really going to die?
A second nurse comes into your room to tell you that you will be going up to ICU very soon. She squeezes your hand, as if to say that everything will be okay. Her shield, masks, gown and gloves say otherwise. You can feel her urgency and worry. A few minutes pass as your mind goes blank. You decide to ask. At this point, you’ve got nothing to lose. You don’t want to bother her, but it’s the only way that you will be at ease. After all, she seems to get you. She seems to understand. She also thought that you were going home. Sure enough, nurse number two obliges and leaves to find nurse number one.
The RN who is on her very first weekend shift in the COVID ward has agreed to sit and talk with you before your trip down the hallway. In this desperate moment, that’s all you want—someone to sit with you. The talking is a good distraction from the possible finality of it all. For another hour or so, the attractive lady in the astronaut-like suit calmly smiles and tells you about her life, her girls and her activities in her upcoming days off. You are grateful to be with her in that moment of time. You feel loved and cared for despite it being your wife’s comfort that you really desire. But, the power of human touch and human compassion transcends all else and the nurse becomes your saviour of sorts. Her kind spirit, her obvious strength, her gentle manner and her kind words will never be forgotten. You are her patient and she is your dedicated caregiver. She is your hope for all things good in the world regardless of your outcome. Thanks to her, either way… you will be going home.
To protect the privacy of those involved, this blogpost is loosely based on true events as relayed to me by a close friend.