The horrors of an ICU with COVID-19 should be enough to make you very cautious

When I was 13, I was deemed mature enough to visit my father in the intensive care unit. It was 1981, and it was a day after he had a complex surgery to remove a mysterious spot in his lung that turned out to be a bug that had lodged itself there during his deployment as a doctor in Vietnam a decade earlier.

His eyes were buggy, his skin pallid, his hands dry as I held them. I was sure that I would dislodge one of the many wires connecting to what seemed like way too many bags hanging from IV poles. The cadence of beeps and the acrid smell of disinfectant was not lost on me. My father would moan with even the slightest movement, which makes sense since his surgeon had to spread his ribs out like a chicken bone in order to fully remove the spot from his lung’s spongy tissue.

My personal experience in the ICU

My next trip to the ICU occurred a few decades later when I was 38 weeks pregnant with my son and again my father was in the ICU, this time recovering from brain surgery to remove a deadly tumor he might have developed in Vietnam.

Two ICU stints, both stemming from service to our country.

Again, he lay in a dark room, his head wrapped tightly in bright white bandages. I walked in silently, willing myself to keep from crying, to make sure he wouldn’t see the terror in my eyes if he happened to open his.

The ICU can be a terrifying place for a patient as I would soon discover twice myself — once in 2009, when I was recovering from an eight-hour prophylactic mastectomy because I carry the BRCA mutation, and then again five years later in 2014, when I had a second mastectomy to remove more breast tissue and undergo 10 hours of breast reconstruction.

Lambeth Hochwald on Jan. 4, 2020, in New York City.
Lambeth Hochwald on Jan. 4, 2020, in New York City.

Those nights are seared in my brain. I can recall everything in sharp detail. After long surgeries, you’re rendered incapacitated and, while I remember knowing what I needed, I felt incapable of speaking. I couldn’t ask the devoted orderlies and nurses to bring me ice chips or change my gown. I just had to wait until it was my turn for care.

Ever since, I have considered my ICU experiences to be a talisman of sorts. I have moments of almost superstitious conjuring, that if I can remember all of the details I can somehow cope with the fear of ever needing to occupy an ICU bed again.

COVID loneliness: Lockdown? I've got this, I thought. But COVID-19 is lonely, even for loners like me.

Even as vaccines are beginning to roll out, about 21,000 Americans nationwide are lying in ICU beds due to COVID-19. Many of our ICUs are almost full, and yet there seems to be very little messaging working to stem this tide.

So maybe I can help: I’m here to say that the ICU is the stuff of a horror film. Want proof? Imagine spending days alone in a room with only the sounds of the clicking of machines and the beeping of an emergency Code Blue to get you through minutes that feel like hours that feel like days. No visitors, apocalyptic personal protective equipment, fear everywhere around you.

You don't want to end up in the ICU

Maybe it’s time for those news segments on TV, in which a reporter walks through a COVID-19 ICU unit, to run on 24/7 repeat to shake us up and scare us to the core. We’re certainly not learning much from leaders like former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who described his stay in the ICU this way: "When you have seven days in isolation in an ICU though, you have time to do a lot of thinking."

It took him a week to finally evangelize about how serious this virus is and how important it is to wear a mask? Now he is making public service announcements about the dangers of negligence: "For seven months I wore a mask pretty religiously and then for four days I let my guard down at the White House, and I got sick."

He’s so much luckier than most COVID-19 patients, and he’s way luckier than my father who died of brain cancer 36 months after his final ICU stay.

COVID: My road to full recovery — like America's — will be long and difficult

As a nation, we are at a breaking point. Many of our hospitals' ICUs are filled room upon room, bed upon bed, filled with a loss so big it’s easy to become numb.

This is no time to pretend this isn’t happening. Instead, think of me, that 13-year-old nervously holding hands with my father as he lay in an ICU writhing in pain.

Now think of anyone you know with COVID-19 who has actually made it out of the ICU and lived to tell their story. I can’t ask my father what it was like to be in those ICU beds, but you can ask loved ones who have survived COVID-19 and they’ll all say the same thing: Be smart, don’t treat this time like any other time before this and, remember, the ICU is the last place you want to be.

Lambeth Hochwald is a New York City-based journalist and an adjunct professor at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Follow her on Twitter: @LambethHochwald

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19: Believe me, the ICU is the last place you want to be