ICU roller coaster

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 28, 2004

The emotion is etched deep upon their faces.

They wander about, seemingly without direction, until stumbling upon a vacant seat.

They sit, mostly in total silence. Some stare blankly into infinity; others, propping their arms on a wooden couch rail, drift off into a short slumber, often jarred from their few minutes of blissful peace by the ring of a cell phone or a loud voice. It’s then that reality returns and the emotional roller-coaster ride begins again.

They are the families of ICU (Intensive Care Unit) patients – a group of total strangers thrown together in a world turned upside down.

With the sudden illness of my mom, our family – still attempting to recover from dad’s death in June – has been among the ICU clan at Pitt County Memorial Hospital for nearly two weeks. There we joined a small group who had already earned their ICU &uot;stripes.&uot;

It seems the longer your family occupies the ICU waiting room, you earn more seniority. Take, for instance, the Vick family from Hubert, a small town in northern Onslow County, not too far inland from Bogue Inlet. For well over two weeks, Mr. and Mrs. Vick – often joined by various other family members and well-wishers from their community – have patiently waited for their brief visits with their 17-year-old son, the victim of a gunshot wound to the back of his head stemming from a hunting accident.

The Vicks have their traditional spot in the 4th floor ICU waiting room. They prefer sipping Starbucks coffee from the three-seat couch located near the end of the long and narrow waiting area. Six times a day, they are able to leave their perch and walk the short distance to their son’s curtain-lined room. They return and make a few cell phone calls, sharing the news of his condition, which, by the way, is improving. At night they are the guests of the Ronald McDonald House, located just a few blocks from the hospital.

In stark contrast to the Vick family, one that easily grows to double digits on occasion since they have five other children plus a host of other visitors, are the Smiths from Chocowinity. Mrs. Smith sits alone in one of the two recliners that hug the west wall of the waiting room. Her husband, John, was rushed to Pitt early last week after an aneurysm burst.

That was just part of the Smith family’s woes. Mrs. Smith, who wears a neck brace, has vertebrae trouble with her back. Recently, her daughter’s home was severely damaged by smoke thanks to a faulty electrical outlet.

Late last week, the Smith’s left ICU. Mr. Smith had recovered to the point that they placed him in a regular room.

Meanwhile, the Underhill family from Wilson had a sad story to share. Two sisters and their aging mother shared the ICU waiting room, taking turns visiting their 39-year-old sister who has been diagnosed with colon cancer. The tumors have spread to her liver.

While on my way down to the hospital cafeteria for lunch last week, I shared the elevator with &uot;mom&uot; Underhill. In tears she told me that it was her daughters’ place to bury her, not the other way around. My heart, grieving for my own mother’s illness, broke.

But yet heartbreak is the norm in ICU waiting. Our collective heartbeats rise when we see one of the numerous doctors come to the door from where he calls out a family’s name. They slowly rise, following the doctor out the door, soon returning with sad faces. You can’t help but not to feel their pain, even though deep down inside you’re dealing with your own anguish.

However, there are a few moments of celebration when a family shares some good news concerning their sick loved ones. There are even times when families will join one another in prayer, thus strengthening the bond of total strangers.

The ICU experience is simply where life on one side of the wall often hangs in the balance while an emotional roller coaster ride is the normal way of life on the other. In many instances, the threshold of death is only a few feet away.

But that’s how it is in life. We are born with a 100 percent chance of dying. Yet we cannot really live, to sink our teeth into all that life has to offer, until we accept the fact that one day we will die. By overcoming that fear, we gain the emotional security to enjoy life to the fullest.

My best advice in all of this is not to wait until tomorrow to reach out and let a family member or close friend just how much you love them. Tomorrow may be too late.