Paul E Cooley
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May 28, 2024

Howdy, Patrons.

My mother was admitted to the ICU on Friday evening, has had surgery, and will hopefully be released in a day or two. The entire Memorial Day weekend consisted of driving to and from the hospital, frantic phone calls, a lot of dark humor, and the occasional moment of utter sobriety. In short, I've had better Memorial Days.

The ICU waiting room is a place of sadness, hope, and a little insanity. My sister, who lives an hour and a half away (on a good driving day), joined me in the ICU waiting room to catch up and share the latest medical news. For reasons I won't go into, she and I started laughing maniacally. Instead of glares or stares from other folks in the ICU, we were mostly ignored. Why? Because of the other family in the ICU that were three times louder than us and laughing just as hard at their own dark humor.

Just as we finished our laughing fit, a family departed the ICU crying and holding one another, and the waiting room descended into something different for a moment. The brief, unwelcome moment of sobriety reminded us that our loved ones inside the ICU could, in fact, die.

Within five minutes or so, and after the broken family left, the ICU was rocking again as someone said something, someone laughed, and the rest of us felt we had permission to breathe.

If you've never been inside an ICU, it is filled with beeps, the squeak of shoes, the smell of antiseptic, plastic, and tension. The doctors, nurses, and techs inside these areas are true professionals who are constantly working on folks who are pretty close to death. I'm not sure how people work in such a place, but I'm damned glad they do.

There are announcements you hear while you're in the ICU. Things like "code blue, room such and such," or "code pink, tag such and such." Both mean someone is either in respiratory distress or their heart has stopped beating. Both announcements give you a chill, especially when you learn that a "code pink" refers to an infant.

Other sounds drift in, like the phlegmy wet cough from damaged lungs, the croaking voice of a patient down the hall, someone crying in pain, or a loved one succumbing to bad news. The sounds pile up when your own loved one is asleep, and you're waiting for a doctor to explain the latest test results. They become a welcome distraction.

What's the story with the person two doors down who said, "I know. I'm dying," with a good-natured laugh? Or how about the nurse who was walking down the hall talking to herself? "Guess it only makes sense if you're 22," she mutters as she stalks to another room. What about the doctor looking at a chart, face granite grim, while his eyes flick from left to right as though he's reading the most important book in the universe? Or the clueless-looking person who is trying to find the room their loved one is in?

I can easily imagine dozens of vignettes to go with each of the above snippets. They're all writing exercises, just letting your imagination wander off without many signposts or clues about where you're headed. I think some of my best work has been spawned by such moments.

All of this I've delved into is just the ICU. I didn't even cover the ER, nor mention the frightened look of the nurse who saw test results and muttered the word "sepsis" before becoming a whirling dervish of activity. I didn't discuss the ER waiting room and the way folks don't want to look at one another, as though we each shared a terrible secret about illness, pain, and worry.

My head is filled with these images, my imagination reverberating with the sounds of medical equipment and the hushed voices of nurses and patients and my skin tingling with stress. The hospital is not a great place to be unless you're a writer with an active imagination. Then it becomes damned interesting.

All this is to say that I'm tired of hospitals and hope that after this week is over, I won't see the inside of one for a long, long time.

Be safe, have a great week, and we'll talk again real soon.


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