To the Frightened Parent Sitting in the ICU


As I write this, I’m sitting in the intensive care unit (ICU) listening to machines assist my daughter’s breathing. This is the sixth time (at least — maybe more) Jaycee has been in the ICU for an illness or emergency. The worst ICU stay included three weeks on a ventilator. The “best” ICU stay for her was just a one-night stay, after going into respiratory distress after a procedure. We’re no strangers to the ICU, though I would love to never return here again.

If you’ve never had a child in the ICU, let me paint a picture for you. It’s like a haunted house. You know going into it that something bad is going to happen, something that will scare you. Even when there’s nothing frightening at the moment, you’re on guard, anticipating the next scare. You know absolute relief will only come when you leave that place, but you don’t get to decide when you exit.

The characters in this haunted house don’t scare you with axes or other weapons. It’s syringes, IV sticks, tubes, machines, suctions, diagnoses or just the threat of these that make you scared.

A new parent coming to the ICU is like a small child who’s easy startled. Me, I’ve been through this haunted house a few times. Some things that would probably horrify first-timers don’t make me flinch at all. Being on bi-pap continuously doesn’t bother me much, although I know it’s not ideal. Holding my child down to assist with a necessary blood draw or cannula placement is second nature to me. But the ventilator — now that machine terrifies me. It means she’s dangerously close to an exit I hope I never see. Watching the placement of long tubes isn’t pleasant either. I find a way to shield my face so I won’t see what’s happening.

There are no ugly decorations or darkness in this place. In fact, it’s rarely ever dark. Instead, this haunted house has simple monitors displaying numbers that can give you a sense of relief or send you into a panic. The alarms, beeps, buzzes and dings at unexpected times can be frightening. The images of your child enduring such awful, unimaginable things as a result of those alarms will scare moms like me for weeks, months, even years to come.

But not everything in the ICU is terrible. There are some really nice people here. They are doctors, nurses, residents and respiratory therapists. They mean no harm when they’re part of the scary moments. They’re trying to save your child’s life, which sometimes calls for things that make us parents squeamish.

So if you ever find yourself in this place waiting for an exit, do whatever it takes to fight off all the fears, imagery, bad news and worst case scenarios. Find a positive song, verse, person or activity to help you through. It won’t be fun. It won’t be easy. But when you leave that haunted house holding your child’s hand, it will all be worth it.

This post originally appeared on A Special Purposed Life.

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