Not very many people can truly say to an ICU patient, “I know how you feel.” Even when they do, most patients roll their eyes annoyingly thinking, how could you possibly know what this feels like. And for the most part, they are right. People often, in good intention, try to develop that sense of communal suffering to show compassion and empathy, as if your high-speed MVC with an ex-lap, multiple rib fractures, and head injury is synonymous with their tonsillectomy. The well-meaning visitors don’t intend to be insensitive or trivial, but you can’t compare most medical situations and there’s really no point. Often people just want your presence and support and an acknowledgement that yes, this situation is terrible and I’m sorry.
Nurses have learned not to utter the phrase to patients, “I know how you feel,” because we realize that we vastly have no understanding of the pain you feel with every breath or the shock of waking up with a permanent colostomy or the difficulty of remembering your name through your hazy head trauma. We recognize our inability to relate and mostly give thanks that we’ve not found ourselves in the patient’s position.
Families present a different situation. Many of us have in fact watched a family member pass away at the hospital or had a relative who was an organ donor or an aging parent with a debilitating illness. In those situations, it’s easier to utter that phrase because we have a better idea of the range of emotions and hardships that run concurrent with such challenges. Often, families are appreciative and take comfort in knowing that they’re not the only ones having to endure such suffering.
But sometimes you find yourself in a desperately unique situation, one that after time comes full circle and makes you realize that life is both ironic and intentional. It becomes one of those moments that you look back on and see that it shaped you, made you the person you are today, and despite sadness or pain, it turned out perfectly with some perspective. Did you know that I have such a secret? It’s one that probably the vast majority of you don’t know because I’ve never told it on the blog. It’s a tale that’s not too rare but also not extremely common. A story that means I truly can say to my patients, “I know how you feel.”
As I sat in the big hospital auditorium months before my college graduation, resume in hand, watching the other applicants rise to the front as their names were called, I thought about the irony of my situation, the irony of me applying to work in the trauma ICU. The fact I had been there before, as a patient, nearly eight years prior to my hire date.
One minor decision lead to one miscalculated turn, one uncontrollable gravel slide and then one major accident. My dad pulled me out from between the parked car and the go-cart as I gasped desperately for breath. It was a strange feeling: hyperaware yet in a daze. I even thought to myself, “what if I die from this?” I had never seriously considered that question before in my fourteen years of life. A ninth-grader with little awareness of my mortality.
I remember few scattered memories during my care flight transport to the hospital and admission including feeling self-conscious as they cut my clothes off in the trauma bay. I recall the cute male flight nurse, wondering to myself, does my hair look crazy? I remember he feeling of wanting to wake up but being unable to; fighting against my own battered lungs for air.
I don’t recall the sticks and blood draws or invasive lines. I can’t remember any doctor or nurses name. And thanks to modern sedation and pain medication, that’s perfectly acceptable. I didn’t understand the severity of my accident or the whispered conversations being held by nervous physicians. I was ignorant of the entirety of my trauma, sleeping away in my sedated state.
After a fairly severe accident, I had come out with a punctured and partially collapsed lung, several broken ribs and a liver so damaged the doctor told my parents it looked like someone dropped a watermelon on the ground, letting it shatter to pieces. Thankfully, your liver is the only organ in your body that regenerates and literally re-grows itself so I at least had that advantage. I was also young and athletic, my body poised and ready for a rapid recovery.
Everyone monitored my blood levels meticulously as they dropped, point by point, down to a critical low…then began to rise back up. My body triumphantly won, allowing me to avoid surgery and a huge resulting abdominal incision. It was a gamble on the doctor’s part and I’m so glad they bet on me. Again, I didn’t understand the medical language or the purpose of the daily procedures. But when I managed to open my heavy eyelids from time to time, I noticed the fear and worry stencilied across my parent’s faces. They were desperate for any positive sign, any sign that I would make it out of this predicament unscathed and alive.
Ironically, stronger than any of the pain or discomfort or emotional heartache was my desperation for water. I was insaitably, irrationally thirsty with strict instructions not to take one sip until the team was convinced I wouldn’t require surgery. Even with continuous intravenous fluids keeping me hydrated, I craved the wet taste on my tongue, the relief of that clear liquid.
Water: it’s something you completely take for granted, until you’re banned from it.
A few ice chips may have slipped by here and there at the hands of my compassionate mother but it’s comic to me that out of that entire experience, my most vivid memory is craving the world’s most standard resource.
Cards and flowers showed up with neighbors and friends. The principal, the pastor, the complete entourage of those dedicated to visiting the sick. Ignorant of the severity of my condition, I didn’t quite understand everyone’s enthusiasm for my well-being as I graduated out of intensive care.
I remember my kind nurse on the floor who stroked my hair and spoke gently to me. I remember feeling self-conscious about the thin gown covering me as my friends from school came to visit. I remember one of my friends trying to hang Christmas lights in my room along with a bursting collection of student-made posters, only to be informed it was all a fire hazard.
I eventually stumbled home, reasserting myself on the couch for another couple weeks as my teachers excused me from my assignments. As muscle spasms settled into my shocked body, I gasped for air through the pain, forcing myself to take slow shallow breaths until the cramps subsided. But day by day I improved and grew stronger. I remember those incremental instances of my improvement well.
Walking to the mailbox, a victory!
Going to see a movie, incredible!
Journeying back to school, looking like an emaciated ghost, a bag of pale bones. Deciding to attend the school dance in an impromptu fashion, despite my convalescence.
As you can imagine, the experience wasn’t quite so innocuous for my parents. They gripped my tiny hand every hour of the day at the bedside. They prayed and cried and let themselves rest on the shoulders of others. They hoped and, thanks to the miraculous nature of the self-healing human body, watched me improve back to a shadow my initially healthy state.
I cant imagine the horror they went through, but I understand it much more now as I watch families of young patients suffer in the ICU. My parents sat where they sat and someone cried with them and tried to reassure them. Probably a nurse like me, now. The tears of a parent can be the most bitter and desperate, but also the most hopeful.
Now comes the even more strange part. About a year after my recovery I had a dream, a strange, oddly clear dream. I saw myself lying in my bed on the hospital floor ward, the same bed I had inhabited during my time there. But I also saw myself standing over in scrubs as the nurse. I played both roles, the patient and the nurse, mirror images. And from then on, I knew my future profession. I didn’t question it or give it much more thought; I just knew I would take on the responsibility and privilege of nursing. God used that trial to show me who I would become.
Years later, when I interviewed for the position, I suddenly realized my extreme advantage, the fact that I could truly say to the patients lying in those ICU beds, “I know how you feel.”
Now I can say those words with honest compassion and empathy, although there are still aspects of the ICU that I didn’t experience. The words aren’t just a cliché uttered by a well-intentioned staff member. I know how uncomfortable it is to get a tube shoved down your nose into your stomach. I have experienced the sting of IV needles and ABG draws. I distinctly remember the embarrassment of a bed bath. Our attending physician, who was only a resident when he took care of me, and I now laugh about how I cried when he told me I couldn’t be a part of cheerleading for a while.They are true words from my mouth proclaiming hope in the midst of a tumultuous place, a light in another’s darkness. Not everyone has such a story and while it was painful, I don’t regret it and I’m glad I’m able to relate my patients in that way, although I don’t share that story with them very often for one reason or another.
I hope for your sake that you can’t say, “I know how you feel,” but don’t think that your presence is any less valuable or your words any less meaningful. Be assured that your actions at the bedside everyday are enough, more than enough as you pour out yourself for your patients and families. They notice your kind words and your expertise and appreciate it more than you can imagine. Believe me, I know. I felt the very same way.