I am writing this post on my phone, in a waiting room, just outside the gates of hell, and I’m delighted not to have been invited in. This particular hell is an English intensive care unit (ICU) and all the patients inside are in constant pain or extreme discomfort, and have either been or are very close to touching the shadow of death.
Drips, tubes, masks, respirators and all the paraphernalia of modern science are employed in the task of playing God and performing the essential functions of life. The smell of urine, sweat and feces blends imperceptibly with the scent of fear and disinfectant to produce the distinctive odor of ICU’s world-wide.
Each bed is a world in microcosm brimming with the dashed hopes of a life crushed by sudden misfortune. The colorful panel of flashing numbers and graphs reel off life’s vital statistics, not in coffee spoons, but in the raw physicality of breaths and heartbeats. Humanity is represented, not by the patient, who has all but been reduced to the periodic table, but by family members struggling to convey love, hope, humor and compassion to the memory on the bed.
The memory I have been visiting is just that, a shadow of his former self. A 64 year old man reduced to a child and locked in the decrepit body of a 90 year old. He is only alive because of the ICU but he is also only alive by its definition, rooted as it is in the crudest physicality. Rest in peace David.
“The public blames the medical profession for giving too many tranquilizers and antidepressants. But what would you do? Doctors like to see healing as the result of their work. Yet today we often must be content with far less. There are so many things wrong with people’s lives that even our best is only a stopgap.” Richard A. Swenson, MD