By Janelle Ross
A year ago, my mom had a heart attack.
She was in Hawaii when it happened. She’d been feeling rough and finally went to see a doctor and within a few days she was airlifted back to Canada, had open-heart surgery, and was eventually sent home with a bunch of pills, a list of instructions, a schedule of follow-up appointments, and a heart-shaped pillow to hug when she was getting out of bed or up from her chair.
I saw her in the hospital, the day after her surgery, and to be honest, she didn’t look great. She didn’t look like her life had just been saved. She was propped up in a bed in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit, tubes everywhere and machines beeping and her hair was a mess and she was out of it from the drugs.
Over the next several days, my family and I took turns spending time with Mom. Mostly, we stood beside her bed and had incoherent, unremembered conversations about unimportant things. When we weren’t visiting her, we hung out in a little room down the hall with the other family members whose loved ones were also heart sick.
Cardiac ICU is an island of uncertain humanity. It’s a Life and Death place, where everyone is on high alert and the possibility of crisis is a constant Damocles sword. In the ICU, the focus is on one thing: keeping the patient alive. There is very little attention paid to comfort or vanity or modesty. It’s all about the critical care of vulnerable people. It’s not a pretty place, at all.
When Mom was well enough to be moved to the next ward, everything changed. She was expected to get dressed in her own clothes every day, to get up and go to the bathroom by herself, and to hold her own water glass when she wanted a drink. People were coming and going, there was laughter and real conversation, and the atmosphere was lighter. It wasn’t a walk in the park, mind, but the darkness of critical care was lifted.
The focus switched from keeping her alive, to helping her live.
On rare occasions, when I’m listening too intently to the negative messages around me, it feels like my heart is in Intensive Care, on life support, and barely functioning. I feel an impending doom, like crisis is the order of the day and potential disaster is imminent. My ICU faith is not pretty. It is marked by worry and fear and, if I’m honest, it’s all about me trying to control the things I can’t.
There’s some scary, bad stuff out there. It can feel like a losing battle.
I can’t stay in ICU forever, though. It’s exhausting and unnatural, and it’s unsustainable in the long term. Although my heart ends up needing critical care from time to time, it’s not long before the direction must change from simple survival to abundant life! So, I brush my hair and change my clothes and head out the door, heart-shaped pillow tucked under my arm, just in case.
By the way, Mom is doing great, now. She’s fit and healthy and her smile lights up the room, just like it used to. Her time in ICU is behind her, and while it was a necessary stop on her journey, she sure wouldn’t have wanted stay there.
I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.