I Spent My Birthday in the ICU And Other Adventures In Your New Boyfriend Nearly Dying

The next time I saw him he was gone, sedated into unconsciousness and hooked up to what felt like hundreds of blinking machines, with a tube down his throat and a machine breathing for him.
Publish date:
May 19, 2015

As I write this, it's Tuesday, May 19th. That means, that my boyfriend of 6 1/2 months has now been in the hospital, mostly the ICU, for a little over a week so far.

If you've been following my posts about him, you know that we fell in love hard and fast. As I said previously, I feel as if all my life I've been a space alien, and for the very first time I met someone from my home planet, who speaks my native language. And that person is Deer Hoof, as he's been pseudonymed based on the taxidermied deer hoof he brought me as a gift on an early date.

When we first started dating, I felt exhausted a lot because we were literally too in love to sleep -- we'd stay up all night whispering how much we loved each other, or just staring into one another's eyes. We did a lot of staring into one another's eyes. In short, we were, and are, disgusting.

Today I feel exhausted because I've spent the last week bouncing from ICU to parenting and sometimes back to the ICU later. I've been texting and making calls to update both everyone I've ever met and everyone Deer Hoof's ever met, including his mom, whom I had never met or spoken to before this happened. I've been stressing about long-term recovery plans, and trying to get ahold of DH's landlord to tell them he won't be able to return to the fourth floor walk-up he shares with a roommate, where his lease is up anyway. Soon, I imagine I'll be moving his stuff out of there and moving him in with friends who are willing to provide the support he's going to need during his recovery.

All this is preferable to the emotional exhaustion I felt earlier this week when I thought that I was about to lose him.

What happened is unusual for someone so young and healthy. He's been sick for awhile, but with what seemed like a garden variety cold or flu. He put off dealing with it for a few weeks, until I made him go to an urgent care, where they took an X-ray, diagnosed pneumonia, and gave him antibiotics. After the antibiotics, he seemed a bit better, but was still getting fevers nearly every night, so I made him go back. They told him that was normal, and attempted to take some blood (apparently DH has "slippery" veins), at one point asking if he could "stop shivering" so they could stick him easier. Later, several ER doctors immediately diagnosed the same shivering as rigors, a physical response that often signals a severe infection.

They weren't able to get his blood that night, but he returned the next day, where they took some and later called to say he was fine. SPOILER ALERT: He was not fine.

We decided to try a proper primary care doctor next, who prescribed a second course of antibiotics. We thought he seemed to be getting a little better, but in retrospect I think he'd just become a pro at managing his symptoms with cough syrup, ibuprofen, etc.

Also in retrospect I feel dumb for not recognizing how severe some of his symptoms were -- the chills and shaking, extreme sweating, a body pain that left him barely able to move, which we blamed on all the coughing.

One day before he finished the 5-day course of antibiotics, he was over at my house when he started shivering uncontrollably, turned sort of a pale whitish-blue and began hacking up a foul-smelling fluid.

"I think we need to go to the ER," I said, a process that still took another hour due to his total fatigue. The acts of getting dressed and down to the car service I'd called were like climbing a mountain.

Long story short (remind me to tell you someday about all the human drama you witness hanging out in the ER for a few hours): His X-rays came back and showed that a lung abscess has walled off the infection so the antibiotics weren't reaching it. The infection itself had progressed to the point that half his right lung had already collapsed. He was admitted and given a CAT Scan and the next day (my birthday!) we were informed he needed lung surgery.

Now at this point, everything seemed manageable. No fun, for sure, and crazy in a "I can't believe you've just been going about your business with a collapsed lung" kind of way, but not overly scary. I even took this selfie in the "duck mask" they made everybody around him wear before they ruled out TB. I asked Deer Hoof if it was disrespectful to take a selfie in my surgical mask, but he felt you don't get the opportunity that often. We had fun telling everyone how my boyfriend was taking me on a super-awesome birthday date to the pulmonary ward.

I hung out with him all day but decided it would be OK to leave for a birthday dinner I'd been planning with my son. I had just got in the door at home when my phone started ringing and I noticed I had several missed calls. DH had gone into respiratory distress, they told me, and was going to be put on a ventilator and knocked out so his body had less work to do.

The next time I saw him he was gone, sedated into unconsciousness and hooked up to what felt like hundreds of blinking machines, with a tube down his throat and a machine breathing for him.

I texted every number and medication I could see to his doctor best friend and found out his body was in sepsis. They came in and did ultrasounds of his heart, which I worried was failing. I spent most of that day quietly sobbing into that damn surgical mask.

I think I'm a fairly good writer, but I don't have the words to describe what I felt on that day. I cried, and I mentally calculated the time we had had together, and cried some more thinking about how it was not enough. I felt stiff, sore and exhausted. My body was running on fumes. I forgot to eat or drink anything or take my own medications. I desperately wished that I had some morphine or fentanyl. (Hospitals, it turns out, are triggering to my inner recovering addict.)

I just sat by his bed, cried, and occasionally tried to locate his cell phone, which had gone missing in the ICU transfer. (A few days later, when I finally located his cell phone, along with his wallet and other valuables, mislogged at security, I felt this epic rush of relief over this small victory, as if by finding his things I had finally really fixed something. The one small thing I had control over, I guess.)

In one of those benevolent universe higher power coincidences, my parents were already coming to visit, so they were able to help me with my son. They came straight from the airport to get my apartment keys. Eventually, one of Deer Hoof's friends came to sit with me while DH went into surgery. We all went to a fast food dinner across the street together.

When we came back, we sat together and watched the little TV screen that told us DH was "in the operating room." Luckily, the surgery was quick. He did well. For the first time, somebody told me my boyfriend was going to be OK.

Although I was relieved, the next few days were more exercises in exhaustion. They started to slowly wake him up the next morning, but he was still drugged and scared, having hallucinations either due to the sedation or ICU delirium, a documented phenomenon. He had a tube down his throat, which was both uncomfortable and frustrating. Not knowing what was going on in the head of this person I've felt so closely connected to was maddening.

One night, after I left the hospital for the day, I received a call from one of the nurses, who said DH had woken up and was scared and lonely and wanted to know if I could come back. Considering he was on heavy drugs and had almost died, I don't think he'll mind if I tell you he was crying. He must have scrawled my name on a piece of paper or something. I turned around.

Another time, he started gesturing to me, then attempted to spell something with his finger on the leg of his hospital gown that I couldn't interpret. I gave him a pad of paper and a pencil, thinking he needed the nurse for something -- that he was cold, or needed "suction" on his breathing tube. This is what he wrote:

I feel the same way, now more than ever.

He's still in the ICU, but on the mend. He walked a little the other day, with assistance. They finally took that damn tube out of his throat and he can speak again. He's no longer hooked up to machines that are doing the work of breathing for his body, he's no longer sedated into unconsciousness, and I'm no longer sobbing at his bedside, except out of relief and love.

He's probably going to hospitalized for another week, and we still have a long, slow recovery process ahead of us after that.

I feel cheated, a bit, of the things we were supposed to be doing -- DH didn't get to meet my parents at the dinner we had planned, we didn't get to see "Pitch Perfect 2" like we'd planned, and who knows when we'll get to sleep curled into one another again. I know I should just be grateful he's alive, and I am, but I am also scared of not getting back to the way things were, of losing this chunk of time so early in our love story.

Everyone keeps telling me what a "great job" I'm doing, but it doesn't feel like I've done anything. I've been at the hospital. I've made text messages and phone calls. I've organized his friends' visits so he doesn't get too lonely or too tired. I just did what needed to be done. And I can't honestly say I'm looking forward to the work ahead of us, the work ahead of me.

But yesterday, I passed the hospital chapel, then doubled back and stepped inside, sat down in a pew and immediately felt the overwhelming sense of peace that accompanies such places for me. I clasped my hands together and said a brief thank you to whoever -- "Thank you for saving my boyfriend. Thank you for not taking away this amazing gift you just gave me. Please help me to continue to be of service to him."

I went back to his room and held his hand until he fell asleep.