Breathe with me
They had left her on the ventilator overnight after her third surgery and it was time to take the breathing tube out. She was doing well for while and I had left to get a snack in the cafeteria. My brother called me as I was paying and said that mom was having a hard time breathing and should get back up there. I got there as fast as I could and as I was buzzed into the ICU I could sense that something was really wrong. I opened the curtain and saw Mom breathing fast and hard with her eyes wide. I could see she was well on her way to respiratory distress. The doctor thought she might just be anxious and that she would ease into breathing without the tube with some intravenous anti-anxiety medication.
After 20 minutes she was breathing harder and her oxygen sats were dropping. My gut had been right and she was going into respiratory failure. They decided to put her on the bipap machine, which is a mask that fits over your face, is strapped tightly to your head and blows air against your nose and mouth. It made her feel even more out of breath and I could see the anxiety on her face, brows furrowed, eyes tight shut as she gripped the bedrails and her knuckles turned white. I was standing at her side, putting on my calm nurse face, trying and failing to sooth her. I was trying to keep her, my family, and myself calm, but I was scared. This wasn’t normal and we couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t breathing.
She was “air-hungry,” anxious, terrified, but still trusted me. I could see it. She wanted to rip that mask off of her face and tried multiple times. I could see the desperation to breath in her eyes I could see her Sats dropping lower as they prepared to reinsert the breathing tube. It felt like years, though I’m sure it was only moments. Her eyes looked up at me pleading as she started feeling even more desperate for air and reached up for the mask, again trying to rip it off, her oxygen hungry body believing that the mask was keeping her from breathing. I had to hold her hands down as I continued trying to sooth her. I knew as I looked into those desperate eyes, that even if she lived through this, these moments would haunt me.
My face was close to hers as we waited. There was increasing desperation in her eyes, frustration and terror, but even worse there was trust. She trusted me, she was trying so hard to listen to me. Trying so hard not to fight my grip on her wrists. Fighting that instinct a drowning person has to attack the person trying to save them. She was fighting the urge to fight me. I saw the conflict and the pain and would have done anything to make it stop. Those moments lasted an eternity and are forever burned into my mind. That wide eyed look of terror, half-crazed mixed with the trust of her daughter the nurse. They came in to intubate her and sedated her so they could do it.
When she was unconscious, I walked out passed the curtain because I couldn’t watch anymore. I had seen hundreds of intubations, had kept patients from pulling tubes and removing masks before, but this was different, this was my mother. One of the closest people in my life. I had kept my cool, remained calm, and held her down but then I went to the bathroom and sobbed. I will never forget that. Those were some of the hardest moments of my life and some of the few conscious moments she had left. It turned out that a cyst had swollen up on her vocal chord, which had been irritated when the breathing tube was removed. I had spent 20 minutes explaining to my mother that it was just anxiety, that she really could breathe as we waited for the anti-anxiety meds to kick in, as the cyst swelled and made it harder and harder for her to breathe. I was wrong, she trusted me, and I was wrong.