Intensive Care Unit


Weeping may spend the night

 but joy comes in the morning.”

                             –Psalm 30

At first, I thought it was a change of shift—a traumatic event for an ICU patient when the nurse he has come to depend on and nearly fallen in love with, in the course of a long and difficult night, vanishes without warning or farewell and is replaced by a total stranger.

But this was a different kind of commotion, with many new voices and lots of laughter. Adding to my discomfort, a man in the next bed, hidden from me by a curtain, never stopped groaning, quietly for a while to himself then breaking out in full and tragic song. I had asked my nurse about him earlier and she said he wasn’t actually in pain.  She said, “He doesn’t like it here.”  No one, it is true, came rushing to his aid.

My nurse had vanished and the party atmosphere grew louder and louder. It was a situation that occurs sometimes in a workplace, or in certain public places like a restaurant, when people who know each other— who would seem to travel in a pack–come in and take over and because of their social standing or their connection with the establishment are not challenged until they become really obnoxious—and then it takes someone in authority or with nerve to say loudly:  “Excuse me, this is an ICU and we have some very sick patients here who need rest and quiet.”  No such person spoke up.

With limited vision from where I lay, I could see young Indian doctors with stylish three-quarter length white coats speaking with British accents, and nurses who looked more like movie stars than nurses, with inappropriately long hair, although they too were dressed in white.

I not only felt deserted, I was becoming suspicious. I was in need of pain medication and the leads to my heart monitor were tangled up with the IV line. “I need some attention,” I called out to a woman in blue who happened to be passing by.  I wished I had spoken with more authority or that my voice had sounded stronger although it may not have made any difference. She was exceptionally well made up and altogether more glamorous than you would expect a nurse or hospital technician to be at this time of the night, or morning. “A nurse will be with you in a moment,” she said, leaving me with the impression that a new order was in force and nursing was not one of its priorities.

I began to suspect that the entire ICU (at least this ICU for there was talk of another one on the same floor) was being emptied of all real patients and its medical staff in preparation for a performance of some kind, a scene in a film or installment in a television series, and all the new people were actors, directors and crew members.  I wondered about my neighbor whose agonizing drama continued uninterrupted by any hospital care whatsoever and, if, in light of what the nurse had told me about him, he was conforming to a script.  Whatever his role, I had a sense that I was the only real patient left and, as such, I was a problem.  I was made to feel I didn’t belong and felt menaced by the situation. In my worst imaginings, I thought they might try, somehow, to get rid of me, or do me harm.  In my weakened condition, I certainly could not defend myself nor could I get up and walk away.

All of a sudden and without a sound, my nurse, Michelle, appeared at my bedside.  In the early morning sunshine, she looked beautiful—with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders.  She had been sleeping. When Dante Alighieri encountered Beatrice for the second time, after a period of nine years, and she returned his greeting, he could not have been happier than I was that morning to see Michelle with her familiar smile and her tired but friendly dark eyes.  “How we doing?” she said.  I was going to ask her for an explanation of all that had gone on before but decided against it.

My sense of persecution had ceased upon her arrival.  My surroundings had changed too.  All the beds around the room that had seemed empty were full again and the nurses station was alive with normal chatter and the rustling of paper.  There was not a sound from the next bed.  Had my tragedian died and been carried away?

After being made comfortable and presentable—freed from all of my tubes and connections—I was ready to be wheeled into Recovery. On the way, I saw my neighbor for the first time. A nurse sitting at his side was feeding him with a spoon and I waved “Goodbye.” He was grinning from ear to ear and waved back. For him, too, the terrors of the night had passed.


Stuart Dodds

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