Sunday, January 15, 2012

University Medical Center, Diamond Building, Intensive Care Unit

Image courtesy of Norbert Kaiser, Wikimedia Commons

There is no place to look. Every time you avert your eyes, they fall on a crying stranger: a fat middle age man bawling into his cell phone, two willowy prepubescent girls weeping into each other’s arms as they tumble out of a conference room full of sobbing adults.

So, for decency’s sake, you look back at your own well of sorrow, but it’s hard to stay there. If anyone so much as murmurs, you whip your head toward them, grabbing at respite, or else your eyes drift from a long maze of tubes to the quiet monitors with their hypnotic waves and meaningless numbers. Something always beeps, pings, or clicks.

“Essentially,” the doctor explains, “his liver is shot. And his kidneys. And his lungs.” Perhaps these are not the words the doctor uses, but this is what she means.

Last week, they said that if he stabilized, if he found a nursing home able to care for a man with not insurance, and if he stopped drinking for six months, then he could go on the transplant list.

This week they’re talking about infections, calling his daughter in the Midwest. “Do you want us to intubate your father? Do you want us to let him go?”

She is young, twenty-two. She says, “intubate,” but when she gets to the ICU they tell her intubation is only prolonging his suffering. He has, perhaps two weeks, with the machines. She asks everyone she knows, and then she tells them, “extubate.” It’s Tuesday, and her tickets are to go home Friday.

His ex-wife, his ex-girlfriends, the people who were his friends and colleagues before this disease became lover, companion, reference, all file through to say goodbye. At first he can focus his eyes and choke out a few words, but after a while, he is no longer there. It is only the machines, and the solemn watchers.

It takes five hours, once they disconnect him, five hours of sinking lower, struggling to breathe, and sinking lower again, until at last the numbers run down to nothing.