Troubling truth, terrible trauma Refusing to accept scientific information, medical realities leading many skeptics and their families along path of needless suffering, loss

That September, when the beeping of the machines and the hiss and sigh of the ventilator grew too loud for my last broken nerves to handle, I stopped visiting my father where he lay, unconscious, in the ICU. Instead, I huddled for days on my bed, seeking solace in the one place that had all the answers, which was Google.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/01/2022 (330 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

That September, when the beeping of the machines and the hiss and sigh of the ventilator grew too loud for my last broken nerves to handle, I stopped visiting my father where he lay, unconscious, in the ICU. Instead, I huddled for days on my bed, seeking solace in the one place that had all the answers, which was Google.

This is a story I haven’t told to anyone before, because on some level, I’m still embarrassed.

For weeks, doctors at St. Boniface Hospital had been preparing my family for the fact that the damage caused by the acute respiratory disease that had suddenly struck down my father might be unfixable. I was desperate for another opinion; I’d begun to “do my own research,” at a time just months before that phrase would become a bitter invective against COVID-19 expertise.

That week, I emailed a couple of doctors who were experts in a certain rare condition that, I’d become convinced, may have been missed by the staff at the hospital. I begged them: would they take a look at my dad? Was there anything they could do to suggest something we hadn’t tried, a test that hadn’t been taken, or one that should be done again?

It wasn’t that I didn’t trust the doctors caring for my father. I did, they’d been wonderful. I knew one of them personally and trusted him completely. The problem wasn’t them; it’s that, facing the bleak map for what lay ahead — one which led right to the edge of an unbearable cliff — I couldn’t bring myself to accept there was no way around.

Desperation can do many things to a mind. It makes tapestries of hope from a few tattered threads. It also makes you close your eyes and cover your ears, unwilling to face what you have so patiently been told by those whose work is to see the facts for you, to explain it, and to know.

Desperation can do many things to a mind. It makes tapestries of hope from a few tattered threads.

To their credit, the doctors who responded to my emails were both caring and professional. They advised only that my father was in the best place he could be for care, and in the hands of the best doctors and there wasn’t anything they could do. Their responses landed in my inbox like a cold wind, snuffing out a light; but I knew they were right.

I didn’t argue with them, or the doctors at the hospital, either. I didn’t swear at them, or question their education. I saw, as those last bits of hope were severed, how they’d been held together only by the love of a daughter, and I let them go.

Two weeks later, my father died, just as the doctors so gently prepared us he might, almost from the beginning.

Two weeks later, my father died, just as the doctors so gently prepared us he might, almost from the beginning.

That was more than two years ago, now. But sometimes, late at night, when I’m crossing the last part of the bridge between wake and sleep, my mind still pulls out that old map of my dad’s journey through the ICU, and begins to search again for any paths not taken. On those nights, part of me understands how seductive it can be to believe anything but the truth.

● ● ●

On Wednesday, medical officer of health and vaccination task force lead Dr. Joss Reimer made, for what must be the millionth time during the pandemic, a calm and measured plea to Manitobans to get the shot.

Yes, she told a news briefing, the effort is about protecting the medical system. But it is also about protecting every single Manitoban, and while the vaccines aren’t as effective at stopping infection with Omicron as with previous variants, they still work wonders against the worst the virus can do, especially with a booster.

“Being in the hospital is a very unpleasant experience,” she said. “Being in ICU is a traumatic experience.”

The medical intensive care unit at the Health Sciences Centre Mikaela MacKenzie/Free Press files

It was good that she used this word — traumatic — because the trauma of critical illness is, perhaps, one of the many aspects of this pandemic that hasn’t been much discussed. By the time the pandemic is over — and all pandemics do someday end — there will have been many more Manitobans than usual who survived critical care, and carry the scars.

Clinicians have long known that many people come out of the ICU changed, and not just in body. In 2015, researchers at Johns Hopkins scoured the scientific literature to better understand the extent of the trauma. They found that about one-quarter of patients who required critical care and survived suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Clinicians have long known that many people come out of the ICU changed, and not just in body.

That’s roughly the same rate of PTSD as is seen in combat veterans and sexual assault survivors. It represents a hard fact about critical care that isn’t evident until you’ve spent time around it: modern medicine can do incredible things to bring people back from the brink, but what needs to be done to haul them back can be horrifying.

And that’s to say nothing of families and the trauma they carry from what they endure. It’s to say nothing of how you live when a loved one is in ICU: afraid to sleep because you’re terrified of being woken by a phone call, afraid to wake because only in sleep can you escape the dread of what the next hour or even the next minute will bring.

The greatest tragedy of all is that since vaccines rolled out, most of the trauma that has come has been preventable. So much pain in our lives comes to us without warning, without reason, without any chance to prepare; but most of what unfolds in ICUs now with COVID-19 could have been prevented with two or three needle pricks.

At this point, with the tensions between the vaccinated and unvaccinated long since boiled over, we ought not forget, as Reimer pointed out Wednesday, that for the most part, the effort to prevent so much of this pain has been incredibly successful; the large majority of Manitobans have been vaccinated.

By now, there’s probably not much anyone can say or write that will alter the decision of most of the others.

“We can’t convince everybody,” she acknowledged.

I think about all the stories that have trickled out about terrified anti-vaxxers who, about to be intubated, cried after begging for a shot and being told by doctors and nurses it was too late for that to help them. Of those same people making a last plea to everyone they knew to get vaccinated before they were placed on a ventilator and gave up their consciousness for days, or weeks, or forever.

I think about how, the day after Christmas, a friend called, someone who lives in an area with low vaccination rates that had been hit hard by Delta. He knew of several people who had survived ICU care for COVID-19. I asked if going through that, if seeing people go through that, had changed any minds about vaccination.

“Oh, they all change their minds,” he said, and it broke my heart to think that might be true.

I think about all the stories that have trickled out about terrified anti-vaxxers who, about to be intubated, cried after begging for a shot and being told by doctors and nurses it was too late for that to help them.

● ● ●

Many years ago, I read an essay from a Christian minister who started his pastoral career doing hospital visits, sitting with the sick, praying with the dying. I can’t remember his name anymore, nor can I find the essay, but the story of it burrowed into my mind and stayed there, pocketed away as a vivid picture of faith and of suffering.

He wrote about praying his heart out with patients, including a young mother dying of breast cancer. He wrote about how, over time, he noticed that no matter how hard he prayed, things usually went how the doctors predicted. If they said that a patient had weeks to live, that patient usually died within weeks.

He (a Christian minister) wrote about how, over time, he noticed that no matter how hard he prayed, things usually went how the doctors predicted.

That experience pushed the young minister to a crisis of faith, he wrote, one from which he emerged with a far different understanding of his work than the youthful hope he had first brought into his calling. But he stayed a minister. He still believed, just differently than when he’d started, and now with a wisdom wrought by walking beside pain.

I think about how, the morning my father went into ICU, I ran to a church and banged on the door until they let me in. The priest led me into the sanctuary, where we sat in the empty quire while tears ran down my face. I asked him to help me pray, because I never learned how, because I didn’t know what to ask for, but I needed to ask now.

He bowed his head, and called my dad’s name. I expected him to pray for my father’s life, to ask God to ensure that my dad, the light of my world and that of so many others, would somehow survive, but that’s not what the priest did.

“We pray for wisdom for the doctors,” he said. “So that they may discern the best course of action.”

Even then, I saw how loving it was to pray not for a miracle, but for the strength inside us to see, to know and to listen.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

History

Updated on Friday, January 7, 2022 9:32 PM CST: Fixes typo

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