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.