‘I Can’t Help Thinking About ICU Room 335’

From Susan Parker
Tuesday February 03, 2004

My husband Ralph is back in the Intensive Care Unit at Oakland’s Kaiser Permanente Hospital. We are old hands at this. I can’t count the number of times we’ve been on the third floor, but this is our first visit to the most critical wing, the place where there is one nurse for every two patients, an always-on-duty respiratory therapist, television screens that monitor the patients’ rooms 24/7. 

Most, but not all, the patients here are on ventilators. Ralph is one of them. For the past 27 days he hasn’t been able to breathe without the help of a machine. For over two weeks he had a tube down his throat, another up his nose and one piercing the back of each hand and an artery in his neck. Last week he was given a tracheotomy, so now the ventilator tube has been moved from his mouth to an opening below his Adam’s apple. The IV in his neck is gone. He still has a feeding tube in one nostril. He looks very, very uncomfortable.  

What do you do when visiting someone in the hospital who can’t move and who can’t speak, but who is wide awake, staring at you with bright blue, questioning eyes? You talk to him, sometimes too loudly, too softly at other times. 

“Do you want me to move your arm?” you shout. “Do you want me to bend your leg?” He nods yes, no or raises his eyebrows which may indicate “I don’t know” or “I don’t care” or “I need something else and I hope you can guess what it is.” 

You do crossword puzzles until the little boxes become blurry and your eyes burn. 

You watch really bad TV, try to read but can’t concentrate. 

You take walks up and down Piedmont Avenue, drink too much coffee, eat too much Chinese take-out. 

You ask the attending doctors, residents, nurses, therapists, interns, assistants and janitors over and over about your husband’s prognosis. 

The question is always the same, “When can he come home?” No one knows the answer. 

When I get home after a day at the hospital I try to unwind. Sometimes I have a drink (or two), sometimes I lie down on the couch, even though I’m not all that tired. And sometimes I make myself do things I don’t want to do but know I must: fill out forms for MediCare, Social Security, and the IRS. I walk the dog, mop the kitchen floor, pay bills, return phone calls and e-mails, check and recheck our bank statements. 

The people who normally work for us, helping me take care of Ralph, can’t pay their own bills because they’re not getting paychecks from me. I loan them money and give them rides to places they need to go. I hope they’ll stick around long enough to be there when Ralph comes home. If he does come home.  

I try to exercise. I swim lap after lap at the public pool—Temescal if it’s not too late, Willard if it’s after 7 p.m. I try to concentrate on my strokes and not obsess on how ironic it is that I can hold my breath when underwater, breathe deeply from side to side as I swim forward, move every muscle in my body over and over again until it is pleasantly, painfully exhausted while Ralph lies in a hospital bed, immobile, waiting. 

Sometimes I wish I could run away. Go to Mexico, Hawaii or Bali, somewhere where it is always warm and sunny, where the water is aquamarine and crystal clear, and the sand below a pristine white, not dirty, faded and cracked, like the bottom of the public pool which I’ve spent hours and hours staring at, trying to make my mind go blank. But most of the time I can’t help thinking about Room 335 on the third floor of ICU. 

I wonder how it is that scientists can send an exploratory machine to the red surface of Mars but can’t figure out a way to hold a ventilator in place with anything other than raggedy pieces of white tape.