Surviving the ICU

by Kathleen C.

My two sisters and I clung to each other as our mother clung to life in the Intensive Care Unit. Chemotherapy for cancer had thrown her into septic shock. She spiked a high fever, suffered a minor heart attack and was receiving oxygen, transfusions and powerful antibiotics. She was heavily sedated but flailed around so violently she had to be tied to her bed. We were all embarking on the Third Step ride of our lives.

The Third Step ride of our lives

When my father had cancer 18 years before, I only had one year sober. I was still numb. But now, with 19 years of sobriety, I was actually feeling my feelings. I was scared and angry. Fortunately one of my sisters had gone online and found an Alano club close to the hospital. We ducked out for a noon A.A. meeting. We shared why we were in town and afterwards the local A.A.s offered encouragement, sympathy and prayers.

When we returned to the ICU, a compassionate nurse took us aside and explained what an ordeal it would be for Mom to be resuscitated and intubated if her heart and breathing stopped. We conferred in the waiting room, collapsed into each other’s arms and wept floods of tears. We never thought that we would have to make such a decision. It was a bittersweet gift of sobriety to be the ones our mother entrusted with this responsibility.

I thought of the Eleventh Step and prayed for knowledge of God’s will for us and for Mom and the power to carry that out. We finally changed her status to DNR-DNI – Do Not Resuscitate, Do Not Intubate. We resigned ourselves to losing our mother. We turned her life over to the care of a higher power.

It was a bittersweet gift of sobriety to be the ones our mother trusted

photo credits available upon request to thepoint@aasf.org

For days she sank deeper into fevered delirium. She pulled off the oxygen mask and the blood pressure monitor. Sometimes she knew us and sometimes she didn’t. I had just hung up the phone with Hospice when my youngest sister called with the good news: Mom was sitting up in bed chomping on a piece of chicken and demanding the parsley garnish too!

To my surprise I was angry. Damn! I had resigned myself to my mother’s death. Now it looked as though she was going to live, at least for a while. She still had cancer; she probably wouldn’t survive another round of chemo. One day at a time, I had to practice the Third Step and let my mother’s life run its course while I prayed to know the right thing to do. After hugs of relief my sisters went home. 

For two weeks she hung on. By then she could no longer eat. She struggled to breathe. One afternoon I called my sisters to say they should probably book flights and come as soon as they could. I spent that night on a cot in Mom’s hospital room.

She had trouble with the noise

She said she had trouble with the noise. I asked if she wanted me to close the door to the busy hallway. “No,” she replied, and pointed to her chemo-bald head. “Inside.”

“Oh,” I answered. “You want to quiet the noise inside your mind?” She nodded. I told her, “Sometimes I just say the Serenity Prayer to myself over and over. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” She nodded again, smiled and slept. My A.A. tools had come to me with no thought on my part. With no mental defense to prepare me for this experience, I was running on my past program, the meetings and step work with my sponsor and the sober women I work with.

The next afternoon my sisters arrived and we gathered around Mom’s bed. This time there were no monitors, no IV bags, only a plastic catheter in her vein, where the nurses injected the morphine which helped her to breathe more easily. We sang to her, as my youngest sister played guitar. We hugged her and whispered that we were there and that we loved her. She smiled and breathed more and more slowly. As we held her hands and gazed into her seemingly sleeping face, she slipped away. We let her go. To God. How did we cope with our mother’s death? The same way we coped with our own lives. We worked the steps, went to meetings, and didn’t drink between meetings.

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