COVID-19: The horrors of staying in an ICU should be enough to make you very cautious
When I was 13, I was considered mature enough to visit my father in the intensive care unit. It was 1981, and it was the day after he had undergone complex surgery to remove a mysterious stain on his lungs that turned out to be a bug that had settled there ten years ago while serving as a doctor in Vietnam .
His eyes were flawed, his skin pale, his hands dry when I held them. I was sure I was going to untie one of the many wires tied to way too many bags hanging on IV poles. The cadence of the beeps and the pungent smell of the disinfectant were not lost. My father groaned at the slightest movement, which makes sense since his surgeon had to spread his ribs like a chicken bone to completely remove the spot from the spongy tissue of his lungs.
My personal experience in the intensive care unit
My next trip to the intensive care unit was a few decades later when I was 38 weeks pregnant and my father was back in the intensive care unit. This time I was recovering from brain surgery to remove a fatal tumor that he may have developed in Vietnam.
Two intensive care units, both out of service in our country.
Again he was lying in a dark room, his head tightly wrapped in white bandages. I went inside in silence, not wanting to cry, to make sure he wouldn't see the horror in my eyes when he opened his.
The intensive care unit can be a terrible place for a patient, as I would soon find out myself twice - once in 2009 when I was recovering from an eight-hour prophylactic mastectomy because I had the BRCA mutation, and then again five years later in the year 2014 when I had a second mastectomy to remove more breast tissue and undergo 10 hours of breast reconstruction.
Lambeth Hochwald on January 4, 2020 in New York City.
Those nights are burned in my brain I can remember everything exactly. After long operations you are unable to work and although I remember knowing what I needed, I felt unable to speak. I couldn't ask the devoted carers and nurses to bring me ice chips or change my dress. I just had to wait for my turn.
Since then, I've viewed my ICU experience as a kind of talisman. I have moments of almost superstitious conjuration that if I can remember all the details, I can somehow cope with the fear of ever having to occupy an ICU bed again.
COVID loneliness: lockdown? I have this, I thought. But COVID-19 is lonely, even for loners like me.
Even as vaccines roll out, about 21,000 Americans nationwide are in intensive care beds due to COVID-19. Many of our intensive care units are nearly full and yet there seems to be very little news that is containing this tide.
Maybe I can help: I'm here to say the intensive care unit is the stuff of a horror movie. Do you want evidence? Imagine spending days alone in a room where only the click of machines and the beep of an emergency code blue can be heard, taking you through minutes that feel like hours that feel like days. No visitors, apocalyptic personal protective equipment, fear all around you.
You don't want to end up in intensive care
Perhaps it is time that the news segments on television showing a reporter walking through a COVID-19 intensive care unit ran repeatedly around the clock to shake us up and scare us to the core. We certainly don't learn much from executives like former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who described his ICU stay as follows: "But if you spend seven days in isolation in an ICU, you have time to think."
It took him a week to finally evangelize how serious this virus is and how important it is to wear a mask? Now he is making public announcements about the dangers of negligence: "I wore a mask quite religiously for seven months, and then I dropped my guard at the White House for four days and got sick."
He is so much happier than most COVID-19 patients and much happier than my father, who died of brain cancer 36 months after his last stay in intensive care.
COVID: Like America's, my path to full recovery will be long and difficult
As a nation, we are at a breaking point. Many intensive care units in our hospitals are filled room by room, bed by bed, and filled with a loss so great that it becomes easy to become deaf.
This is no time to pretend this is not happening. Instead, think of me, this 13 year old nervously holding hands with my dad as he was in an intensive care unit, writhing in pain.
Now think about someone you know with COVID-19 who actually made it out of intensive care and lived to tell their story. I can't ask my dad what it was like to be in those intensive care beds in those beds, but you can ask loved ones who survived COVID-19 and they will all say the same thing: be smart, don't treat this time like that Any other time beforehand and remember that the intensive care unit is the last place you want to be.
Lambeth Hochwald is a New York-based journalist and associate professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. Follow her on Twitter: @LambethHochwald
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This article originally appeared in the US TODAY: COVID-19: Believe me, the intensive care unit is the last place you want to be
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