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'I've just come off a ventilator and trust me: you never want to be on one.'

Can you imagine feeling as if you’re slowly drowning, unable to breathe, unable to ask for help? I don’t have to imagine it because this is exactly what I experienced as an intubated patient on a ventilator last week.

I was having an emergency surgery, but I was so unwell going into it that as soon as I was put under anaesthetic, in the few seconds before the tube went in, I vomited. 

That vomit aspirated into my lungs. The surgery was a life-saving procedure, so it had to go ahead, regardless. 

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Immediately afterwards I was taken to ICU, and I was ventilated for a total of 17 hours.

Like everyone else, I’ve seen the frightening footage of COVID-19 patients on ventilators. It looks awful but you can’t begin to imagine just how awful it actually is until you’ve experienced it for yourself, so let me paint a picture for you.

For a start, those patients on TV may not all be unconscious the whole time. I was sedated but not fully knocked out. 

Sedation levels go up and down for a number of reasons. In my case, my blood pressure was out-of-control, racing between a systolic rate of 70 and 210 within minutes. It was too dangerous to keep me that way so the sedation had to be lightened.

This meant that I could hear every word spoken by the medical staff to each other and to my husband.

"Is she suffering?" my husband asked a nurse.

"No, she’s fully paralysed. She won’t feel a thing."

This was the most terrifying thing to hear. Fully paralysed? What, like forever? I had no context. I didn’t know that the nurse meant I was paralysed because of the drugs, that it was deliberate. I thought that was it for me.

"No!" I wanted to shout, "I am suffering! I’m drowning, I’m choking! Tell me what’s happening to me? What’s this thing clogging my airways?"

But of course no words came out.

I tried to make eye contact, to show them I was alert, that I was here and present. But no matter how much I focused on it or how hard I tried, I couldn’t get my eyelids to lift.

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I tried to lift a finger or wriggle my toes, anything to show the health care professionals that I could hear them – still nothing. 

The nurse was right; I was fully paralysed. But she was wrong about the suffering, and there was no way I could communicate that to her. I’d never been more afraid in my life. 

After a while, the medical team decided it would be better for me if they eased the sedation further. The paralysis lifted and the first thing I did was reach up and grab the tube. Immediately the nurse at my bedside stopped me. I was able to open my eyes, and I frantically stared at my husband. Help me! What’s happening to me?

The nurse was amazingly calm and warm. She and my husband together explained what had happened to me in surgery and that the ventilator was there to save my life. I reached for my husband’s hand and tried to write letters with my finger on his palm but my hand was too shaky for the letters to be decipherable. 

I did sign language for writing and the nurse brought me pen and paper. I was able to scribble words that were shaky but clear enough to be read.

Drowning, I wrote. Choking.

The nurse again reassured me. She stroked my hair and my hand. "You’ll be okay, sweetheart. You won’t choke or drown. You’ll get through. Just let this machine do its job and help you."

Truly, are there any greater angels in the world than nurses?

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I stayed awake for a while, my husband by my side. But soon it became too much. I couldn’t bear it. 

I did sign language for sleep. I preferred the paralysis and isolation of being more sedated to the trauma of the drowning feeling being even more intense when I was awake. 

The lovely doctor agreed, and my sedation was turned up again. 

This became the pattern for the rest of the time that I was ventilated, coming in and out of sedation. 

Every hour felt like a decade. Because my lungs were so clogged from the vomiting episode, I had dozens of coughing fits except you can’t actually cough when you’re on a ventilator so I gagged and heaved and the nurse put a long suction straw down my throat to clear up what I was heaving.

It’s an eerily scary thing to be coughing so hard in absolute silence.

I had a lot of thinking time over that long night and into the following morning. 

Here I was, an English speaking and writing, able-bodied woman with my husband right by my side to advocate for me. 

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I was so lucky to be ventilated in a non-COVID-19 affected city where relatives are allowed to be present. 

I was lying on my back able to see everything around me for those periods when my sedation was lifted and I could make eye contact with my medical team and understand everything that was said to me. 

It made me utterly heartbroken for everyone who didn’t have the privilege I had. 

I thought about every COVID patient, especially the vulnerable ones such as the elderly or young people or disabled people all on their own in these terrifying circumstances, with no loved ones to comfort them.

I couldn’t imagine the horror of lying face down when face up was already so traumatic. 

As soon as my sedation was lowered I was immediately able to express my concerns to the staff. Would a child have the wherewithal to request pen and paper? What about anyone who couldn’t write in English? Or even understand English when medical staff explained what was going on?

While I was lying there, I promised myself that when I made it out alive, I would try to use my voice so that fewer people would find themselves in a position where they had to be ventilated. 

I hoped my words might encourage someone who was vaccine hesitant to rethink their stance.

I had no choice in whether I was ventilated or not, it was a rotten case of bad timing for me when I was sick during surgery. But for almost every COVID-19 patient that is ventilated, it’s a preventable thing.

Being intubated was hands down the worst experience of my life.

I’ve known real fear before, but nothing like this. Nothing can compare to the physical torture of slowly being choked over hours and hours, and for some people, days and days, with no agency to resist it or stop it happening to you. I want nobody to experience this who doesn’t have to. 

A week after coming off the ventilator, I’m grateful and joyful to be alive and well. 

For most of the day I’m as high as a kite at being given a second chance at life and still being here to mother my children. The ventilation experience does make me have a little cry every day though.

Don’t open yourself up to this. Have the vaccine. Be safe. Go well. 

Tess Woods is a Perth based physiotherapist and an award-winning fiction author for HarperCollins Australia. Her contemporary novels about the ups and downs of families and relationships have recently been released into North America and sold into Europe for translation. 

Feature Image: Getty.

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