Letter to you, ICU Survivor…

Wow……what the hell was that!

That’s what I think 12 months on from being admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (Pencarrow) at University Hospitals Plymouth.

Due to complications post-surgery in November 2018, I was admitted onto ICU in a medically induced coma.  I had a perforated oesophagus and associated complications resulting in a 13 day stay on Pencarrow before being transferred to Crownhill ward to begin my recovery. In total I spent 84 days in hospital. 

As strange as it may sound, I can’t tell you much about my time on ICU. Aside from the obvious of being in a coma, I experienced severe deliriums. I experienced horrific scenarios, which to me are very real and very much happened. A quote from a Harry Potter film sums it up perfectly: ‘Of course this is happening inside your head Harry; but why on earth should that mean it is not REAL’ (Albus Dumbledore).

My deliriums varied: riots, WW2, flying a spitfire, being held hostage, religious sects….to name just a few. But as well as these vivid scenarios, I also experienced loneliness, neglect, intimidation, fear, despair and many other feelings.

One tool that I am grateful for is my ICU diary. Without this I would be lost. I couldn’t read it until late on in my recovery. It was written in daily by my nurses and gave me a picture of what had happened on ICU and how I came to be there. I would encourage any relatives/patients to ask their care team to write in their diaries on their behalf.

Aside from my physical illness, my biggest battle has been delirium. My transition from 1-1 care on ICU to a busy 26 bed ward was not a pleasant experience and a huge shock to my system. I now know this to be quite a normal experience, but nobody prepares you for it – nobody prepares you for the feeling of abandonment or distress.  

Shortly after arriving on Crownhill, I asked a nurse about the riots as my mum didn’t believe what I was talking about……and neither did he! He kindly offered to find out about any incidents that might have occurred during my time on ICU but there was nothing. It then began to dawn on me that what I’d been experiencing perhaps wasn’t real. The days that followed were filled with family members filling in the gaps, us laughing about my crazy little stories. Initially I shrugged it all off….’silly crazy me’. But deep down I began to worry, trying to figure it all out. Discharge day came and I decided that I wanted to visit ICU and thank those who had saved my life. WOW – was that a big mistake. It hit me how critically ill I’d been. I met an ICU nurse who I recognised and therefore I assume must have cared for me. She informed me that I would be contacted post-discharge by the ICU psychology team and asked to complete a questionnaire, but I didn’t expect it to raise any issues. 

14 days after discharge I attended the outpatient’s department. However, arriving at the hospital resulted in me breaking down. I froze, became unable to move and cried…. a lot. We put it down to just having a little anxiety having been through what I had. However, another outpatient appointment resulted in me almost running away – shaking, terrified, confused. Luckily, I was there to see the ICU psychologist. She diagnosed PTSD and explained about deliriums. Suddenly, everything started to make sense and it was a relief to be taken seriously by someone. 

To treat my PTSD and deliriums, I received EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy). With one of only two hospitals in the country who offer this service to its post-ICU patients, we as patients are incredibly lucky to have this. EMDR achieves similar results to when your brain processes your thoughts during sleep. Each session required me to talk about everything I’d experienced, in tiny detail, whilst following a light. Other than feeling drained, I was sceptical about the treatment. But then I noticed that I was able to talk about my experiences and not feel scared or emotional. After 6 sessions, a strange feeling in my head occurred; as though all my vivid thoughts had been put into a box and moved to the back of my brain. It was very weird, but it worked. I still have the memories, but I don’t have the fear that was once associated with them. As a result, this has allowed me to start a blog, documenting my experience, in the hope that it might help others (www.fromdeliriumtoreality.wordpress.com).

If you’ve been in ICU, it’s likely that you’ve fought for your life and therefore you don’t need me to remind you of that. But what I need to remind you of is this:

Never forget how far you’ve come if you’ve been an ICU patient; 

Your loved one is in the best possible hands if they are currently where I, and many others have been. 

ICU can seem a frightening place, but it’s a lifesaving oasis – calm, controlled and jam-packed with amazing, knowledgeable and caring staff. 

We are all #RehabLegends.

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