You can almost touch the feelings in an ICU waiting room. It can be one of the loneliest places in the world or one of most miraculous. Either way, it changes your life.
This was my first time in one. I looked around. There was a man standing at the glass window that looked out into the hall. His eyes stared unseeing, worry drawn in every crevice and line in his face. Over in a corner, a mother sat with two quiet children. That was enough to draw my attention. No scampering about or babbling in their own language. Just two sets of large eyes, staring at a foreign world.
Then there was the little old lady. She sat hunched in her chair, arms wrapped around her as if trying to hold everything in. Red-rimmed eyes showed tears were at the ready. I was drawn to her. Is it true misery loves company?
She nodded as I sat down, then like a dog waiting for its master, her gaze riveted back to the stark doors of the ICU. For a few minutes, I argued with myself. Say something. She needs comforting. Can’t you see that? Talk to her!
My voice sounded out of place in this room of waiting. “Are you okay?”
Her shoulders stiffened, her head lowered, and I was about to get up and move to another seat, embarrassed I had intruded when she spoke softly.
“My husband could be dead right now.”
Now it was my turn to rivet all my attention on those two doors.
She looked at me, and I was drawn back to meet her gaze. I was surprised by the calm I could see in her eyes. She opened up, pouring out the story of her husband’s years of heart disease. How, right now, after another heart attack, they were trying to revive him. She wondered, out loud, her fears. Should she tell them to stop? Was he ready to go? Was he already gone?
Turning back to stare at the doors, tears falling from those reddened eyes, she said, “I just wish they would tell me what is going on.”
I’ve never spoken about my faith unless asked. Always felt it was a private thing. I could never be a good evangelist. But at this moment, a wave of impulse took over. I grabbed her hand, squeezed and words I had never spoken before tumbled from my mouth. “Would you like me to pray with you?”
My inner voice went into a panic, screaming, what are you thinking? My heart argued back; she needs this.
Her countenance changed into the loveliest dawn I have ever seen. Her eyes widened, a smile tipped up aging skin to reveal beautiful white teeth and her tears stopped. Age spotted hands eagerly found mine, and she bowed her head.
There seemed to be an eternity of silence before my brain engaged my voice. Words I will never remember came out in a mumble. She added a few of her own, and then with a mighty squeeze, we went back to before.
Now she questioned me about why I was there. I told her about my husband’s cancer. For a moment, she looked wistful before she said, “All disease is terrible, but I wish my husband had cancer instead. It would be so much easier for them to be able just to cut out what is killing him.”
From where I was sitting, I would have liked to disagree, but I understood. To her, in the valley of the shadow of death that she walked in, all other valleys looked greener.
The doors silently opened, and a very professional nurse came out and called to the lady beside me. “Your husband is doing well; he is asking for you.”
Her veined hand squeezed mine. “Answered prayer! God bless you and your husband too.” Then she disappeared behind the forbidding doors.
Another hour passed by before finally it was my turn to hear that Mr. Gabel was doing fine, and I could see him.
Even though I worked in a hospital and was no stranger to an ICU unit, I was shaken when I saw him. Until it is one of your loved ones hooked up to all that tubing and beeping monitors with flowing alien-green lines, you really can’t understand the fear you feel.
His nurse had obviously seen that look before. Funny how I knew many male nurses, but I had never seen them as the nurturing type. Only female nurses fit that description in my book. I was having a lot of firsts.
To this day, this male nurse remains vividly in my mind as one of the most caring, tender, nurturing human beings I have ever met. “Don’t be afraid. I know it looks scary, but he is doing well.” Staring at my strong husband, all I could see was a mound of cotton blankets, his bruised arm with several IV lines and a plastic protrusion coming out of his mouth. He was as white as the blankets he was under. His chest rose in an odd mechanical way, and I knew, sensed, he was not conscious.
The nurse’s rich baritone stood out against the beeping. “Right now, he is in a medically induced coma because of the trauma of the surgery and on a ventilator. The doctors will start bringing him up tomorrow. You can touch his hand; he hears you. He may not remember it, but he knows you are here. Talk to him. “
I slid my hand into his cold one, swollen from the fluids being pushed into him. Gently I rubbed the only spot free on the back of his hand, murmuring, “I love you,” over and over. Tears of exhaustion slid out. Finally, I sat in a tiny corner of the very equipment-crowded room and felt grateful. Darrell stirred, fighting the ventilator, his arm moving towards his face.
I jumped up, grabbing his hand, noting his eyes half opened, a vacant stare meeting my own. The heart monitor beeped, and Darrell groaned.
“It’s okay Mr. Gabel. You are in the ICU. You are doing well. Everything is okay,” the nurse said soothingly.
I squeezed his hand, once again murmuring “I love you”. My heart rejoiced when I got a gentle squeeze back and he rolled his head towards me, not seeing me, but sensing my presence. The heart monitor leveled out.
For the next hour, this was my routine as the nurse bustled around, taking notes, checking fluids, watching monitors and reassuring his comatose patient.
“Mrs. Gabel, where are you staying?” the nurse asked.
I still couldn’t get over being called Mrs. Gabel. That was Darrell’s mother, not me.
“I planned on staying here.”
The nurse’s assessing gaze was now turned upon me. “I can’t tell you no, but I was just curious, do you trust me?”
I was taken back for a moment. “Well, yes. Why do you ask?”
A boy-next-door smile of warmth appeared. “Your husband is in the safest place on earth. Surrounded by all these machines, and my capable skills, even if he had a problem, which he isn’t, you couldn’t ask for him to be in a better place. I bet you haven’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks. Call the relatives, take care of yourself. Do it now while you can, because you will be taking care of him soon enough. It is my turn to have the night watch, and no offense, but there’s nothing you can do for him. Trust me, he’s in good hands.”
He was right, I was exhausted. I watched him carefully lift my husband’s shoulders to slide a plumper pillow under his head. My mind was made up. Gently I leaned over and kissed Darrell on the cheek and squeezed his hand, saying my customary, “Goodnight Darrell, I love you most.”