Thursday, May 13, 2010

Peek-a-Boo I C U

I C U. Intensive Care Unit. It's intensive, alright. But it's not a care unit.

On regular hospital floors, during the day, quality staff are available. It's "showtime" at the hospital, where relatives and friends of the patient get to see how caring, nurturing, dedicated, and loving the doctors, nurses, and their staff are. Nighttime at the hospital is quite another story.

Nighttime in ICU is a nightmare.

If you are going to spend time in ICU, I strongly suggest you have someone you know and trust be there all night to advocate for you. Insisting that you have someone there during the night won't win you popularity contests, but it will help ensure that you can avoid the trauma of the very unit that is supposed to take care of you.

After my double mastectomy with reconstruction at a hospital with an excellent reputation, I spent two consecutive nights in ICU, nights so horrific, that I think I could make a living selling t-shirts that say, "I was in ICU, and I lived to tell about it." 

The first night, all night long, a young, inexperienced nurse kept forgetting to check on me at the intervals the doctor had ordered. To make matters worse, even though I was trying to mend physically and psychologically, the nurse kept telling me about each ICU patient's condition. I'll spare you the gory details, but she eventually whispered in my ear, "You're the lucky one. You are the only one getting out of here alive."

At least she whispered. The ICU staff in an adjacent room were singing audibly about one of the unfortunate patients who probably wouldn't make it. I cried, thinking of that person, laying there -- as I was laying there, strapped in -- with a mocking song being the last thing he or she would hear.

By daylight, the smoke screen was back. 

The loving, sweet staff returned by 8 a.m., just in time to give visiting families and friends the show of their lives. When my family brought up my complaints, they were assured that I was delirious from all the medication and that I was exaggerating. I also told my doctors about the things I heard and saw, and they were concerned and complained to the ICU staff about various mistreatments. I was proud of myself: I advocated for myself and would receive better treatment that night.

Or so I thought.

The second night was worse. I woke up in the middle of the night, parched with thirst, and in near-total darkness. My bed was moved into a dark corner, and I was afraid. I called out for someone to please get me water, but to no avail. I begged for water non-stop and begged for someone to come by and help me because I was now afraid that I would die of thirst. I kept begging for help.

Nobody showed up until dawn.

Had a friend or relative been there that entire night to advocate for me, I could've taken a break from begging and allow my companion to do the dirty work. 

The day after the I'm-Dying-From-Thirst-But-Nobody-Showed-Up-Last-Night episode, I told my surgeon what happened. He decided it was detrimental for me to be in ICU any longer, so I was moved to a far better unit, one without the words "Intensive Care" in it.

Whatever hospital unit you are in, I really cannot emphasize enough the importance of having an advocate -- someone you know and trust -- staying overnight with you. If I could rewind back to that time period, I certainly would have done so.

Three-plus years after this trauma, I am still unsettled. But if my experience will help at least one person have an advocate by his/her side during hospital nights, it would make my suffering have more meaning.

Beth L. Gainer is a professional writer and has published numerous academic and magazine articles, as well as an essay on her breast cancer experience in the anthology Voices of Breast Cancer by LaChance Publishing. She writes about a potpourri of topics, including motherhood and her Chinese adoption experience at, and her cat Hemi blogs at Beth teaches writing and literature at Robert Morris University in the Chicago area. She has a guest posting on The World's Strongest Librarian at

She can be contacted at and



  1. Wow, disturb-o-rama! That sounds so horrible. Like a 17th century French prison instead of a health care facility.

    I'm sorry to hear that this happens, that this happened to you. I hope writing about it is a step toward healing the trauma.

    Thanks for sharing this and helping others know that they need to have an overnight advocate on the scene.

  2. Beth,
    I think everyone has had one of these moments, I will never forget being alone. I was there for chemotherapy for my lupus in 2000, probably six months into treatment. I had a blazing headache when I was admitted and asked for my ativan and vicoden, that was at 3:00pm. Hadn't eaten anything all day, too sick to do that then. They were understaffed that ONE time out of two years of care. Finally got an IV in, nurse brought in a bag of chemo, I read it, It was the wrong one. I called the nurse supervisor and also told her to get more help on the floors, I empathized with the nurses. Then the resident came in with his shirt half tucked in his pants and a stethoscope dangling from his neck saying I have no order for the Ativan the binding headache I had that affected my vision post TIA. I told him there were standing orders for months. I told 5 times the dose was 0.5 mg- The med nurse came with 1.5mg of Ativan. I threw a fit. seconds later I told them I was going to get a wheelchair and head to the pharmacy myself. The MD finally called me and said "OMG, AnnMarie you would have been a sleep for a day or two with that much at once".
    The nurse that finally brought the right meds came around 2:00am, she was from Russia.

    She said she was amazed that I knew my orders as well and complimented my stamina, with all the errors that had been thrown my way. I told her when there is adversity in all things, is when we are closet to God. And in that she looked at me and said, may I close the door, I will pray with you. What an angel she was, I felt a rush of warmth and comfort come over me and thanked her insightful appreciation for the facts.

    The next morning, the Dept Head of Rheumatology came in with his residents. As sick as I was, I said, "I have a bone to pick with you!' and I read the list of errors. He shook his head, but before he could speak, I said. " And Doctor, what happened to the others last night who could not be their own advocate or speak?" He humbly said, " I am sorry, I don't know what to say?"

    I'll never forget that night, I felt so paranoid it was like someone was trying to do me in and almost succeeded.
    God Bless you for your writings and your support.

    Ann Marie Glaviano
    Founder and President

  3. Ann Marie, thank you so much for sharing your story of self-advocacy and courage. I really appreciate your candor and willingness to fight hard and not be intimidated by the medical system.

    Thanks for posting your comment and thanks for your thanks!!

  4. Cynthia,

    Thank you for acknowledging my harrowing experience. Disturb-o-rama is right!! I am hoping that my writing will make a difference in the world.

  5. Beth, thanks for forwarding me this link. What a troubling experience you had! (Ann Maria, you too!!) I agree, if you cannot advocate for yourself, you need someone with you who can. Hopefully others will learn from our mistakes.

    It's tiring having to double-check everything — but it can save your life!

  6. Renn,

    You are welcome! I felt the need to share my experience to let others know how poor our medical system can be. Yes, we have to advocate for ourselves in order to save our own lives.