“I want to go home and take care of my husband.”
That was what Dorothy* said just shortly after we took her off the ventilator. She was an elderly woman in her late 70’s who was admitted in our ICU after suffering a major heart attack. Her heart rate went berserk like a runaway train that we had to slow it down. She also developed heart failure, causing fluid to build up in her lungs like a dam, giving a sensation of drowning.
As she was extremely struggling to breathe spontaneously, we placed her on a non-invasive ventilator. This ventilator is like having a jet-fighter pilot’s mask strapped snugly in your face and then hooked to a strong blower machine, forcing air and oxygen into the lungs. This is similar to the machine that people with sleep apnea use at night.
Besides the cardiac and respiratory failure, Dorothy also suffered mild kidney and liver injury from the poor blood perfusion to these organs as her heart was like an overwhelmed central pump, barely sputtering to adequately supply its vital tributaries.
For three days Dorothy was on this non-invasive ventilator to assist her breathing. But with great care, supportive interventions and medications, she slowly improved. She improved enough that we were able to liberate her from the breathing machine. Now, all she just wanted was to go home, and be with her husband.
After talking to her at length, I learned that Dorothy was married for 56 years. A long time indeed. Her husband, believe it or not, was more sickly than her. She was supposed to be the healthy one of the pair. In fact, she was the primary care giver of her ill husband for many years now. She devotes her time and energy in taking care of him, so much so that she sometimes neglects taking care of her own self. Such dedication. Such love.
And now this happened. Who will take care of her husband now?
But Dorothy willed herself to get better. She was determined to get stronger. She will survive this heart attack. She will get over this congestive heart failure. She will recover from this respiratory failure. She will be going home to be with her husband once again.
The next day, Dorothy was out of bed and was sitting in a chair. She looks so good and was really doing fantastic. She improved so much that we told her that we were moving her out of the ICU, and if she continued to do well, she might go home in a couple of days. She was ecstatic.
This proves that many times it is really mind over matter. Our willpower can heal our ailing body. Our resolve can overcome our weakness. Our determination can make us stronger. We can will ourselves to get better. And in this case, love was the motivating force. Like some old songs would say “that’s the power of love,” and “love will find a way.”
Not too long after we left Dorothy in her ICU room, her daughters came. They came with a sad news. Terrible news! Her husband – the one that she dedicated her life and strength, the one that she love in health and in sickness, the one that she willed herself to get well in order to come home with – suddenly collapsed at their home. He was dead on arrival at the hospital.
Two hours later, Dorothy was placed back on the ventilator. Life can be so cruel at times.
(*not her real name)
(**photo was taken inside the great hall of Salisbury House in Des Moines)