My Time on a Ventilator
What it's like when you can't breathe
You groggily awaken in the OR. Your surgery has ended so you close your eyes for a peaceful recovery.
Without warning, you feel as though you’re being propelled through a wind tunnel and somewhere off in the distance, you hear someone shout, “Hurry, she’s not breathing.” Someone else shouts: “Her heart stopped.”
As you feel the wind blowing through your hair, you can’t help but wonder who is about to die, but the bright lights of what you assume are hospital hallway lights are too bright for that thought to last too long. They’re so bright; you squeeze your eyes shut against the glare. All is now suddenly quiet and peaceful. The wind has stopped. The brightly flaring lights now a soft glow.
Someone is gently shaking your shoulder while saying, “Wake up. Come back to us. Open your eyes.” You realize that someone is speaking to you.
While it was a struggle, I did was I was asked. I opened my eyes but found I couldn’t speak. I could barely move. What happened? I was fine just a few minutes ago. Wasn’t I?
A doctor walks to where I lay, leans over the bed, and says, “You had a bad reaction to the anesthesia. Your lungs and heart stopped working. You’ll be on a ventilator until you can breathe on your own again. We’ll be monitoring your progress constantly.”
That happened to me in February of 1979. It was the scariest part of my life.
Every hour, for eight hours, a nurse would approach. I would hear a loud “CLICK,” then no air! Nothing! As hard as I tried, no air! I would see a hand pass over the top of what I assumed was a tube that was inserted down my trachea. I would hear her say, “Nothing yet. Hook her back up.” Another loud, “CLICK,” then beautiful cool, refreshing air and I’d be breathing again.
Actually, I wasn’t breathing at all. The ventilator was breathing for me, but it was keeping me alive. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t get my lungs to function.
Was I doomed to a life of ventilator dependency? Did the lack of oxygen paralyze me? As I said, I couldn’t move. Did I suffer any sort of brain damage?
Time continued to pass by and every time I closed my eyes, a nurse would rush over, tap my shoulder while saying, “Now, honey, please don’t close your eyes. Stay awake for us. You can’t sleep.”
Another question. Why? Why was I denied the privilege of a nap? I felt so tired. I wanted desperately to sleep even if only for an hour or two.
I thought of my two young sons. Their father and I were separated with a pending divorce. Before the surgery, he graciously volunteered to keep them for the duration of my recovery. He had no idea what was happening in the ICU. No one called him. I’m not blaming anyone. No one had his new phone number. I had it but was in no condition to give it out and didn’t think ahead to write it down on my admission form. I was supposed to be in the hospital for only two days.
Lying helplessly in the ICU, as the clock on the wall ticked away each second, all I could think of was breathing and getting home to my sons, rebuilding my life again without my almost ex-husband.
Boredom had me drifting off again Another nurse, whom I’ll call Anne hurried to my bedside. She gently stroked my forehead. “You need to stay awake. We’re afraid if you fall asleep, you might slip into a coma.”
Wow! That opened my eyes in a hurry.
“That’s good. I’ll stay here awhile and talk to you if you don’t mind.” I was able to nod my head a bit indicating that would be fine.
For what seemed like seconds but was in real time, almost an hour, Anne sat next to me telling me about her parents, her children, her struggles as a nurse, and her husband who was the love of her life. She said she needed to check on other patients but promised she’d return before she left for the day.
It was almost the end of her shift. I heard the shuffle of feet and saw Anne’s face. “It’s time once again. This time, I want you to try and take the deepest breath you ever inhaled.”
I heard that all too familiar, “CLICK.” I focused and finally after eight agonizing hours, took the tiniest whisper of air you could possibly imagine. But it was enough.
“Yea!” Anne exclaimed. She shouted to another nurse, “She took a breath. A small one but it was there.” A second nurse verified that I indeed took a small breath, a few of them.
Anne said, “Close your eyes. We’re removing the tube.”
It felt like someone was removing a cactus plant from my trachea but suddenly, it was out. I was breathing on my own! Anne said I could now close my eyes and take that long awaited nap. I’d soon awaken in my own room.
I have no idea why I reacted so badly to the anesthesia but to this day, here in 2021, there have been occasions where anesthesia stops my breath. The doctors, nurses, and anesthesiologists are all aware of this problem and take extra precautions to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Have I been on a ventilator since then? Yes. Yes, I have, but for no longer than 2 hours and that’s because the doctors are forewarned and monitor me very closely.
I know the fear of not being able to breathe voluntarily. It’s a horribly scary thing to go through.
I can’t help but have the deepest empathy for those who contract and suffer from COVID-19 and must be ventilated. For those who live through it, they’ll never forget the time when the only thing keeping them alive was a machine.
For those that didn’t make it, all I can say is that it was a horribly, hideous way to die.
I no longer take breathing for granted.
I haven’t since February of 1979 and never will.
About the author
I am a 75 year old grandmother who loves to write, fish, and grab my camera to capture the beautiful scenery I see around me.
My husband and I found our paradise in Punta Gorda Florida where the weather always keeps us guessing.
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