This story is by Sheilah Ward and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“How are we doing today?” a familiar voice said. I heard Nurse Nancy come into my room and listened as she walked to the side of my ICU bed where the ventilator was. She sounded like she was talking to it instead of me; her voice wasn’t directed at me. Since the accident and my subsequent isolation into myself, I’d learned to hear where people were talking. My eyelids had been shut against the outside world. I’d lost track of time; and even though I’ve been conscious during this whole ordeal, days and nights blended into each other. I’m guessing it’s been about two or three months since I ended up here.
The ventilator she was talking with was doing its usual up and down thing-pushing air into my lungs, then pulling it back out again, pushing in, pulling out. I could feel it breathing for me, could hear it breathing for me. The in and out noise from the thing was torture. But when it stopped, torture was too kind a word. That had happened a couple of nights ago. I hope never to go through that again.
The night the ventilator stopped breathing for me had been an unusually quiet one in the ICU. I knew that was where I was; my injuries and paralysis had left me in critical condition. I was an unusual case because I was stuck inside myself, aware, feeling, and hearing, but isolated from life. The problem was, no one else knew I was aware. They attributed my lack of response to being in a coma. Oddly, brain scans showed basic response, but not awareness. I heard them talking about it so many times. “He’s in limbo,” one doctor had said to a group of what I figured were medical students. He then tsked tsked. That had pissed me off that he would attribute a life being in limbo to just a little tsk tsk. I can hear you, you callous idiot! I screamed loud inside myself. But only I could hear me think these words, shout these words. I could tell by their conversations that they thought I was a little more than a lifeless corpse, only one with a heartbeat and blood pressure.
I was awake (I slept and woke), and was listening to the docs and nurses. They were gathered at the station outside of my room and they were talking about some conglomerate that was planning to take over the hospital. “I hope they increase our pay” one nurse said. “I hope they get rid of the union!” said another. The scream of the ventilator alarm came out of nowhere, and they had to stop solving the takeover problem to come in and see what the issue was. I don’t know why it stopped, but I could sure feel it. I was aware of every breath it gave me. I remember thinking that if I got through this, I would never take another breath for granted again. The isolation that I normally felt intensified ten-fold when I couldn’t breathe. I felt my mouth auto open to suck in air that wasn’t there; I felt eyelids that had been shut for so many months try to open. The pressure in my chest was building and my face felt like it was going to explode. It was like being under water too long as you swim slowly, too slowly, to reach the ever elusive top. My legs and arms suddenly weighed a thousand pounds each. By now they were all in there, pushing this button, pulling on that tube.
Andrea, a nurse I really liked, was there. She had always treated me as if I was awake and could understand. (And I could). She took my hand. “Easy, easy, Aaron; it’s okay…it’s me, Andrea; we’re fixing it.” I felt her thumb move back and forth across my knuckles. I usually saw black, but now bright lights flashed in my peripheral vision. Somebody tore the ventilator tubing from the tracheostomy tube in my throat and attached an ambu bag in its place. I heard the bag squeeze and felt the pressure on my throat as the precious air pushed into my uninflated lungs. I felt them soak up the oxygen like a week old dry sponge does a few drops of water. The pain of the air rushing into my lungs was excruciatingly sweet. My chest rose and fell with the artificial breaths and my limbs, so heavy just moments before, lightened as the oxygen coursed into the air-starved cells throughout my body. I was alone with a million people in the room paying attention to me. I was in my own, isolated, paralyzed world, while at the same time; I was the center of attention of everyone else’s. The beeping ventilator was reattached to my trach tube. The in and out hissing, once torture to hear, was soothing and reassuring, just as Andrea’s voice had been moments earlier.
I pushed the memory of that recent, scary episode to the back of my mind. Nurse Nancy was still talking to my ventilator. “I see that we are not using as much oxygen from the ventilator; that’s good,” she said. I felt the eyelids that had been stuck shut for so long suddenly flutter. Was that wishful thinking or was that real, I thought at the same time the nurse shouted at me.
“Hey! Hey! Aaron? Aaron!” She was close now; I felt her breath on my face. She shouted, and I felt my body tense for the first time in months. Nancy’s voice changed tone. “Aaron, open your eyes.” The command was deliberate and I struggled to obey. My eyelids, like my limbs the few nights before, seemed to weigh tons, where before they didn’t seem to exist. It took all I had, which wasn’t much, as you can probably guess, to move them the slightest bit. But move them I did. Now I was sure my body was reacting.
She was shaking my arm. I felt my forearm muscle tighten at her touch. None of them thought I could feel anything when they touched me. They would try to elicit a response in the most barbaric of ways. There was this test they did every few days. “Put the needle in this spot;” the doctor would instruct the physical therapist, “that’s where the nerve is the most sensitive.” Ouch! My brain would shout, but my tongue and mouth would lie still and play dead. My mind would scream at them: “Stop, you’re hurting me!” One of the many procedures I did not particularly enjoy. Because my nervous system and muscles didn’t respond to their brand of torture, they figured I had no feeling. They didn’t know that I’d never stopped feeling. Never stopped hearing. Never stopped knowing.
Nancy was now shaking my arm. Her fingernails were long, and like the needle test, they bored into my skin. I screamed and my brain registered it. It was loud in me, but to Nancy, no noise came. But this time, my mouth tried to move. I felt like the Tinman in the Wizard of Oz when he gets that first delicious drop of oil drizzled onto his rusty mouth. My lips were dry and cracked and my tongue tasted blood.
My eyes shot open and the light was unbearable. I slammed them shut against every bit of will I had. I heard Nancy punch something on the wall and yell, “He’s waking up; bed three’s waking up!” The sound of so many sets of feet reminded me of the westerns my dad and I used to watch. The horses’ hooves pounding, you know?
I opened my eyes again and immediately squinted. My eyes began to tear up and I could feel the tiny drops drip down both sides of my face. I saw blurry faces peering at me while at the same time I felt pushing and prodding like never before. A pair of fingers pried my left eyelids open wide, then a light shone into my eye. Same thing on the other side. My sense of smell had returned; the breath of the guy checking my eyes was heavy with coffee and my stomach suddenly churned. “Mr. North! Aaron! Can you hear me??” Coffee breath shouted into my ear. Someone shook my shoulder. Their shouts were so loud. I tried to move my hands to cover my ears. Hands pressed on my arms and the pressure increased when I tried to move. I tried to talk, to yell back at them and tell them to stop shouting. I felt my mouth move but realized that the tube in my throat wouldn’t let me talk. I felt like a fish out of water, my mouth gaping as it tried to form words I hadn’t spoken in months. I felt my eyes try to close, I was suddenly so tired, but I forced them to remain open because my body was waking up.