Four years ago I spent a week in ICU, one of the most frightening experiences of my life. Truth be told, it was pretty scary for my wife, as well. The one thing that kept me going was the fact that I felt I needed to write about my experiences. It’s amazing what the human mind can come up with to explain what is going on, especially if you aren’t in possession of your faculties.
If you ask some people what their personal philosophy is, they get very solemn, and then come out with some sort spiritual reply. My own philosophy is pretty basic:
It’s a poor experience that you can’t get an article out of.
I hadn’t written anything for publication since the Ozark Gazette had bought the farm two years earlier, so this article also helped me get back into writing. While the article is humorous, I don’t want to downplay the seriousness of my situation. There was some doubt as to whether or not I would leave the hospital alive. A lot of folk have deep spiritual experiences when faced with times like this. My only real thought was:
get me outta here!
In Defense of the Virtual Realm
Written by Richard S. Drake
As I explained to the EMTs, all my problems would be resolved, if they would just stop the ambulance so I could get out and urinate somewhere – anywhere. Well, it made sense at the time.
They, however, disagreed, and so I found myself on a hot July night in Springdale, lost, confused, and virtually insane, in the Intensive care Unit.
The situation I found myself in had seemed to develop with bewildering rapidity. For the previous month I had been on a rigorous diet, eating relatively little but drinking a lot of water and fruit juices. I was feeling like a new man as the weight came off. Unfortunately, I was
setting myself up for a major fall – a sudden onset of Diabetic Ketoacidosis, or a Diabetic coma, as it is most commonly known.
I thought I was suffering from a virus; I was urinating a lot. Suffering from exhaustion, and even throwing up a few times. And I was thirsty, really, really, thirsty. I’d had all these symptoms in the past, usually connected with the flu or some other virus. This would all pass, I told myself.
Isn’t is funny how you can be pretty intelligent some times, and grotesquely stupid at others?
But then I began to dissociate from the world at large. I’ve been involved with public access television in Fayetteville since 1991, and we were having our annual summer celebration of the First Amendment, Freedom Fest, the weekend of July 4. Being board president, it was incumbent on me to attend. But when the day came, though I knew the day long event was going on, I couldn’t see how it had any relation to me.
That weekend I also began fixating on a television program my wife and I had watched in Germany 30 years before. Well, I had been there, but my wife hadn’t been. In fact, now that I think back on it, I was remembering a show I had never actually seen.
Between severe headaches and sleeping a lot, I was also concerned with making sure we had plenty of ice cubes in the freezer. I began stumbling into walls, and got lost in a panic in the bathroom one night, when I couldn’t find the light switch.
I couldn’t eat, literally. Tracy made me a meal of peas and chicken, and bade me eat it, but I couldn’t swallow the chicken at all. I stumbled back to bed.
At this point she realized it was more than a flu virus I had. She called my best friend and told him what was going on with me. His mother had suffered from Diabetes, so he recognized the symptoms right away; he advised her to call an ambulance immediately, and he would meet us at the hospital.
I walked out of the bedroom to find the EMTs waiting for me. If it was up to a vote, I would have voted against going to the hospital, but it didn’t seem to be a democracy at my house that night.
After the ambulance ride (which can seem like an eternity, especially when you have to pee) we found ourselves in Springdale. Checking my blood sugar, it was discovered that my blood sugar count was 1358. Assuming that a normal range might be between 90 and 140, I had certainly almost come close to setting some sort of record. I was insane, drunk on sugar.
The Discharge Summary from the hospital states that I was “disoriented, confused, and at times agitated,” but that hardly begins to cover it. I was terrified, and at times violent. It took six people, including my wife, to restrain me – and that was just to fit me with a catheter.
The only clear memory I have of that night, other than the first few minutes after arrival, was my terror, and my pleading with them to stop, or to sedate me first. “For the love of God,” I screamed, “please sedate me!” I called out for my wife and even my sister (a nurse who lives in South Carolina) to help me. I’ve never been so scared in my life. It’s been almost two months since that night, but every day I recall it, and the terror fills me anew, though it seems to be lessening with time.
I don’t think they expected me to survive.
But by noon (I had been admitted after midnight), thanks to Insulin my blood glucose level had dropped to a much safer 141. I made what the Discharge Summary referred to as a “dramatic recovery” from my confused and agitated state of the previous night.
But before I achieved a state where I could be described as even mildly lucid, I had to survive the night. Part of that meant I had to survive mentally.
I was partially blind, disoriented, and in terrible pain. I had no idea where the hell I was.
In order to cope with the confusion, my mind conjured up four different scenarios to help explain my new world to myself. Some people say I read too much, but I think that’s what may have kept my mind together in those long hours, restrained to a bed in ICU.
I began to fantasize that I was in a French hospital, around the time ofthe first world war.
In my mind, the nurses all had French accents, and were discussing my condition with someone – my wife? – while I writhed in terrible pain. I remember the nurses were incredibly kind. In my mind, I saw dim white walls, and a window overlooking a French city. How I knew it was French I’ll never know, but there you have it.
I have read a lot of Earnest Hemingway, with “A Farewell to Arms” being my favorite of his works. If he wasn’t literally in the room with me, his words certainly were.
The next I knew, I was in a cold and sterile German hospital, the sort of place where Ian Fleming would place James Bond, just prior to being tortured in some evil way. These are the sort of scenes that never make it into the films, but they are there in the books, in all their sadistic varieties – even as a teenager I wondered if Fleming wrote the novels just as an excuse to write about torture.
I remember the nurses here as being not so pleasant, even though they were undoubtedly the same nurses who had nursed me in the French hospital. “Sit back, Mr. Drake!” I recall hearing (several times) as I struggled in the bed. It was probably at this point they figured it was best to restrain me. I was probably a real pain in the ass at this point.
Though I didn’t undergo any of the tortures 007 would have endured, it certainly felt as though I were. I didn’t like this place at all.
The next fantasy was my favorite; I was a bomber pilot over Germany in World war II. I didn’t actually drop any bombs, though (maybe even in my delusional state I didn’t want to kill any innocent people) – instead, I imagined I was communicating with German code breakers – who were, in all actuality, Arkansas nurses. I’m not sure they realized the role they were playing out in my fantasy.
Speaking a sort of half-remembered German mixed with English, I attempted to make friends with these very friendly code breakers. I recall asking if any of them knew any jokes. One repeated back to me Wimpy’s famous line from the Popeye cartoons: “If you buy me a hamburger today, I’ll gladly pay you back on Tuesday.”
The illogic of the situation never occurred to me; why would German code breakers be amiably chatting over the radio with an Allied bomber pilot?
The last full fledged fantasy was the hardest on me emotionally. I went from the semi-friendly skies over Nazi Germany to a bleak Russian hospital, the sort where dissidents often found themselves for years.
Why was I here? Had I really been here for months, as I imagined? Did anyone know where I was? “Where is my wife?” I asked.
“She was exhausted after you were checked into ICU, so she went home to getsome sleep.” What? That didn’t make any sense; why would she be gone for months? Had she abandoned me? Was I in a secret location?
A feeling of terrible loneliness came over me. I had been deserted in a foreign country, unable to see clearly, and doped to the gills. I was in a hell of a situation here. At one point a voice asked me if I knew where I was.
“I am on the Russian space station Mir,” I joked. Even in a deluded state, I could still make bad jokes. Maybe there was some hope after all.
I also asked for some sort of radio or televison, so I could hear some international news. I specifically mentioned BBC news.
“Sorry,” a male voice explained, “our station doesn’t carry that. But ‘‘Mr. Bean’ was just on.”
“I hate ‘‘Mr. Bean,'” I groused. I drifted off again.
Finally, after what seemed like years (but could hardly have been more than half a day, I was lucid enough to understand where I was. I still had mild delusions over the next several days – after a vivid dream, I told a nurses’ aide that her grandfather was a famous science fiction writer, even supplying her with his name.
“Okay,” she humored me.
I also imagined I watched an entire documentary on television one night on Biblical direct marketing, using the Old Testament as a guide for designing and building your house, even going so far as to what direction the door should face. Is there such a thing? Do people really take advice from ancient folk who didn’t even have indoor plumbing?
My most bizarre delusion came after a few days, when I was convinced (for a few minutes) that Wal-Mart was determined to kill me in the hospital, after I thought I had recognized one of my doctors from a Wal-Mart commercial. I had, after all, written about them and some of their critics in the Ozark Gazette. I literally had no doubt that it was pay back time.
But as John Cleese says in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” I got better.
There are small things that can make a huge difference to someone in Intensive Care.
Living through the experience, for one thing.
Your first spoonful of ice chips, and your first glass of water. Your first real meal.
Looking forward to Sloppy Joe night. Not being restrained to a bed any longer. Your wife holding your hand. Your best friend sitting with you. The kindness of strangers who are already overworked with other patients.
A television channel changer that doesn’t stay on one channel for hours ata time.
I still don’t know everything about my behavior when I entered the hospital that night. I don’t know how much I want to know; I remember the terror I felt, and I still get the shakes sometimes over that.
But I also remember the defenses my mind put up, to helping me to survive a horrifying ordeal. The experiences of a lifetime of reading and watching old movies helped erect a wall to keep me sane, so that I could survive. I am convinced that this, as much as any medicine I was given, helped get me through.
And I’m glad I never actually bombed anybody in my World war II phase. There’s worse things to take pride in.
Little Rock Free Press – October, 2004