“The most confused you will ever get is when you try to convince your heart and spirit of something your mind knows is a lie.”
I sat by his bedside for 5 nights and 6 days. I tried not to cry. I’d never been in an ITU before.
I wondered if he would ever wake up. I wondered if he might re-emerge from the coma, able to speak another language, play an instrument to concerto standards. Or maybe he might wake up with an intense interest in DIY and shopping. One could only hope. Just so long as he woke up.
Now that he was awake, it was worse.
I lay alone in my Melbourne BnB. Would it have been better if I had crashed and Bruce had to cope with the shock? Up to a point perhaps, all that knowledge and the professional respect. But I knew Bruce. Once the medical stuff was done and the outcome was clear, he’d have fallen apart. He’d have shouted at the doctors; got escorted out by security; raged about tiny aspects of my care; drunk enormous amounts of white wine at night and watched Star Trek repeats on Netflix.
I’d seen him in action as a doctor, motoring accidents and aeroplane dramas. Make no mistake, he was happy to sit and watch. He wasn’t what he used to call an ‘ambulance-chaser’, desperate to get his hands dirty. If someone else volunteered and did a good job, that was fine. If he decided that the care wasn’t good enough, he’d jump in. I’d find myself holding a relative’s trembling hand, comforting a van driver after they mowed down a motorcyclist, while he held a broken neck steady, or an airway open.
He once found our son on the floor of our downstairs toilet, blood pouring out of his mouth. Josh had his tonsils removed 5 days earlier and all had been well.
I’d have called an ambulance, but Bruce “had seen this before”, grabbed a bucket for Josh to pour into, and threw him into the car. God only knows what speed he drove. He used to get speeding tickets so often, you’d have thought he was using a toll road to get to work.
Josh said that he couldn’t stand up by the time they got to the Emergency Department.
Josh said, weeks later.
“I knew I was in trouble when Dad looked worried. He just flashed his security badge and dragged me straight through the sliding doors.”
Bruce always had a medical friend somewhere, ready to help or advise. Cocky as he was, he admitted that he wasn’t an expert in everything. He also hated the emotion that came with family and friends. He told me that it clouded his judgement. Instead, he would dump those whom he cared for, on a brilliant pal, a trusted colleague, or someone world-leading and kind, and then walk away.
That day he found a whole operating team plus a young ENT surgeon whom Bruce admired. He hadn’t said so much, but I knew Bruce had seen him work. Bruce wouldn’t let anyone he didn’t trust near me or the boys.
My mind wandered in the foggy fatigue. Shards of reality mixed with flashes of lunacy, random ideas and memories. Or were they?
That time Josh nearly died. Fuck that was scary.
Anyone else’s kid, anaesthetising in some dire emergency, I’d have been joking along with the best of them.
I’d have annoyed the senior surgeon, feigned indifference to help deflect the stress of someone’s life suddenly thrust into your hands.
“Hurry up grandad. He’ll die of old age before you get here.”
That’s how it worked. I was the duck on the pond, legs going like the clappers underwater, unseen by others. It was different with your own flesh and blood. I couldn’t always hide my own pain. Not if a case touched you. Then you couldn’t think straight.
Josh was fine eventually, and so was I.
I bounced into the coffee room having wiped away my tears. The ‘brown trouser’ jokes erupted and I bought everyone coffee and then later, a few pints. I left 17 year old Josh on the kiddie’s ward tucked under the Little Mermaid motif on his duvet.
Every morning I tried to be useful.
After brekkie, I used to nose at other patient’s drug charts, unfasten the clipboard from the end of the bed and have a quick look. The chart gave you a broad understanding of their illness. It might be painkillers and stool-looseners, anti-psychotics or anti-depressants, it was all good to know.
Mostly, I gave end-of-the-bed pep talks and anecdotes to others, just routine, gentle banter. It struck me that brain-injured patients are a lovely bunch. They enjoyed my daily check-ups and never commented on my saggy Qantas pyjamas. It was all very natural and easy. This new role was comforting. I didn’t have to write any notes, or discuss hopeless cases with weeping relatives.
I sometimes wondered how Anita was getting on. She would come and visit me at the same time between 2 and 4 each day. I guess she was shopping or exploring Melbourne, maybe just hanging out? She seemed to be much more upset than I was. At least in her Air BnB, she could choose whatever food and TV she wanted. OK so she had no medical background, but she had listened to me ranting for 25 years of marriage.
The fact was, I wasn’t going to die and none of it was her fault, the crash or the injuries. I’d slept through the worst of the pain and I think the nurses on ICU had been nice to her. She needed to pull herself together I figured. Anita would get used to the drama and the tragedy eventually. Let’s face it, even the worst tragedies were never especially shocking. What else did people think happened in hospitals? Even the cruellest twist of fate was already described somewhere in a textbook.
Anita wasn’t trained to deal with trauma like she saw in ICU those first few days. No professional of any speciality should deal with critical situations that touch their soul. If you can’t separate yourself from the possible consequences, you must find someone who can, and handover. There’s no shame in that. Delegation of the painful stuff is a powerful, vital strategy.
Now that I think about it, I’m glad it was me and not Anita that crashed.
She’s tougher and much nicer than me.
I woke again. Had I been dreaming? Where was I?
Had I had a crash?