This gives me a cold sweat just to think about it, but I’m actually sad to see this appear in the news.
Annually, about five million patients stay in an intensive care unit in the United States. Studies show that up to 35 percent may have symptoms of PTSD for as long as two years after that experience, particularly if they had a prolonged stay due to a critical illness with severe infection or respiratory failure. Those persistent symptoms include intrusive thoughts, avoidant behaviors, mood swings, emotional numbness and reckless behavior.
Yet I.C.U.-induced PTSD has been largely unidentified and untreated. When patients leave the I.C.U., said Dr. O. Joseph Bienvenu, a psychiatrist and associate professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, “Everyone pays attention to whether patients can walk and how weak they are. But it’s the exception for them to be screened for psychiatric symptoms like post-traumatic stress or low mood.”
Now critical care specialists are trying to prevent or shorten the duration of the mood disorders, which can rattle not only I.C.U. patients but their frantic relatives.
So there’s a million or two folks, each year, that may be suffering from PTSD from their experience. It beats being dead, I know. Been there. But still, not nice.
I spent a month in the hospital trying not to die from respiratory failure, that was chalked up to a viral pneumonia (still don’t know what caused it). Been long enough that I can’t remember the specific terminology but I think it was characterized as ARDS. I was also not taking any care of my health, so I know I brought it on myself to some degree. A month lost, took a while to recover enough physically to function, but it took a year to recover in my head.
“I.C.U. patients have vivid memories of events that objectively didn’t occur,” Dr. Bienvenu said. “They recall being raped and tortured as opposed to what really happened,” such as painful procedures like the insertion of catheters and IV lines.
The I.C.U. setting itself can feel sinister to patients, as if lifted from “The Twilight Zone.” The eerie, sleep-indifferent lights. The cacophony of machines and alarms.
I can recall one specific instance of nearly jumping out of my skin one day, when a radio program played the noise of a ventilator and I mistook it/recognized it as something out of a nightmare. Crazily enough, it was understanding that it was a ventilator noise that helped – the realization that these nightmare visions had some basis in reality, however distorted. But that’s just the most vivid experience I can recall, while awake…that was months after the hospital stay, those sedation drugs were long gone. I still feel sometimes, irrationally (and I know it), that some part of me died there and I lost something essential. That’s nothing compared to the folks all too willing to offer interpretations on what few details I did let spill to anyone at the time.
I don’t want to say more about it. Certainly not going to share this on Daily Kos like my gun violence diaries; better that nobody or almost nobody reads this. Even if it was in the NYT. But I have more evidence, more understanding. I wish that felt good, but it doesn’t. It just…is, and I don’t want to forget. The understanding, that is. Some parts of this I will never forget.