I found out that I had contracted flu, which had turned into pneumonia extremely fast. I had then developed a wonderful complication called ARDS. Also known historically as ‘shock lung’, your lungs basically fill with fluid and stop moving. It has a fairly high mortality rate, and from what I have read since joining support groups and forums, has an enormous amount of lasting after-effects, the majority of which I am extremely fortunate not to have suffered. ARDS is the reason I was kept in a coma for so long. My lungs were simply not capable of functioning on their own at this point. I actually single-handedly cost the UK tax payer tens of thousands of pounds, as a special rotating bed had to be imported in from Sweden for me – it moved and shook slowly and continuously to try to dislodge the fluid which had accumulated on my lungs. It accounts for the fact that I dreamt a lot about machines, aeroplanes and elevators. It’s a fairly common theme for patients in these beds, it seems.
It took a fair while after waking up to recover, but I am told I did it extremely quickly. I’m fairly proud of this, actually. When you are on a ventilator for a prolonged period of time, your lungs and the surrounding muscles become reliant on its pressure to move and breathe. This means to be able to breathe on your own again, the pressure must be gradually reduced in order to ‘train’ your lungs to move again. You spend certain amounts of time off the ventilator and on oxygen, usually in ten-fifteen minutes increments at first. It is called ‘weaning’ and can take several weeks. I distinctly remember thinking ‘Well, fuck THAT,’ (excuse my language), and forcing myself on the second day off the vent to stay on the oxygen for at least an hour. It took an awful lot of thinking about and concentrating on my breathing. (I should really find mediation extremely easy now; I must try it again!) It’s very strange to have to consciously do something you have been doing unconsciously all your life, or at least for as long as you can remember. It feels like climbing mountains. Just doing Everyday Human is a monumental effort which we all do every day without even thinking about it. If you have lungs that breathe easily, limbs that move you about with no pain or struggle, and are generally healthy, then hot damn you are lucky, and don’t you ever forget it. I remember breaking down in silent tears one afternoon whilst watching television – it was Hollyoaks of all things – because as I sat there in my propped up hospital bed, Victorian-straight so as not to disturb all my tubes and wires, I was envious of the effortless way the actor had thrown herself down to lounge on a comfortable sofa. I’m literally making myself cry again remembering this. I’m off to lounge on my sofa for a few minutes and really appreciate it.
That was a good lounging sesh. Back to the story.
It’s interesting being a child-sized adult in an adult-sized hospital bed. I amusingly kept sliding down to the very bottom of it until my head was nearly submerged beneath the blankets, and my nurses would frequently have to come and re-position me. It gets even more interesting the first time you have to sit up in a chair. Due to health and safety regulations, what once would have entailed a strong armed nurse or two lifting you from your bed and helping you into a chair now entails a great electric human sling called a hoist after one too many nurses suffered back injuries lifting heavy patients. I understand the need for this, however, I was not a heavy patient. I was about 6 stone after having been fed through a tube for a month, and 4’9-and-a-half. A thirteen year old child could have lifted me with no strain. However, rules-is-rules, so the intimidating great hoist got pulled to my bed and I was slung into the sling. Well, not quite. I had to be lifted whilst one nurse gathered up all my various wires, then disconnected them so I could be moved to the hoist, and reconnected them once I was in it (a terrifying few moments off the ventilator listening to your alarms beeping whilst having cold nylon straps put underneath your bare bottom. Then the hoist whirrs and clicks, and slowly lifts you from your bed. You begin to feel like one of the soft toys in the clutchy arm things at seaside arcade machines, and fervently hope that they aren’t rigged to drop you like the seafront ones are. Here’s the really fun part – these hoists are meant to accommodate humans up to some quite considerable weight and size…which means if you are tiny, your behind starts to slide out of the gaps in the bottom of the thing. I had a surgical gown on (and a catheter inserted) so as you can imagine, my behind was very bare. I could feel the cold air on it as the hoist moved me over to the seat and can honestly say I have never felt so humiliated. I am aware that the nurses have seen it all before etc etc, but when you have no dignity left at all, retaining a tiny shred of it becomes extremely important. I still blush to remember this. Suffice to say I was only in the hoist a couple more times before I decided I would walk to my chair after that. I was diligent about practising my physiotherapy (just tensing leg muscles and arm muscles really, in order to get them functional again) so I could achieve this, and am pleased to say I did. Although walking to that chair for the first time felt like a journey of 500 miles. (Now I have the Proclaimers in my head.)
My recovery continued at a steady and relatively rapid pace after that. I still remember the exciting moment when I was told I could come off the ventilator and just have oxygen through the nose tubes instead. Very exciting until they removed the tracheal tube – argh. I wasn’t prepared for the feeling of something popping out of my throat and a rush of air where the hole was left. It was really strange and uncomfortable, and the tube was much longer than I had expected. The nurse asked if I wanted to see the wound, but I shook my head. I didn’t take one single look at the wound until it had fully healed some months later. I couldn’t even change my own dressing. I was too weirded out by the fact I had a hole in my neck. I am actually glad I didn’t look, as I don’t want the memory of seeing my neck like that. My scar has healed quite neatly and is barely visible now, thankfully. It was worth the weird when my daughter came in to visit that first evening after I was off the vent and I said hello to her. The look on her face was adorable. She smiled a huge smile, cried, and came up to give me a huge hug (or as huge as you can hug a person covered in wires, at least).
There was a lot more to my recovery than that, as once I was off the vent I then spent a week or two out of intensive care and on a normal ward. I also spent weeks at home only being able to climb stairs by hauling myself up on my arms, as they regained strength more quickly than my legs did. Then there were the daily dressing changes, and the constant weakness and wheeziness as my lungs tried to heal. I also suffered PTSD-like effects – flashbacks, panic attacks and re-living the hallucinations every time I closed my eyes. These were to continue for about five-six years, and I do still get them occasionally, even ten years later. I have permanent memory problems to this day, but just after coming home I was a complete mess. My brain couldn’t remember how to form sentences properly and often I spent a long time searching for the right word. As someone who prides herself on her vocabulary, this was incredibly distressing. It took me a long time to stop thinking of myself as someone ‘ill’. It may well be the reason why I have trouble acknowledging my mental illness – this repulsion to the idea of needing help again.
However, I’ve written this not only to try and describe the experience to those who are interested – and to reach out to others who may have been through it – but also to relive the sense of euphoria I had when I first returned home – despite all the difficulties above, I knew how incredibly lucky I was to have survived. What I had suffered had a very high mortality rate. Other people who have been through it and survived have been left with horrible problems and some can never come off oxygen – and I am have healed enough to have continued my career as a professional singer and actress since. (We aren’t mentioning the depression right now. That’s for all the separate posts – although writing this over the last few days has been a very healing and cathartic experience).
I put the healing down largely to willpower – and sadly that is something that my depressed self keeps thinking I have none of. I think after ten years it’s time I learnt from this experience that after that, all the petty despairing inanities of life I currently worry about are nothing. I am alive. I am currently healthy (touch wood, I’m superstitious enough to have to say that). I have friends. I am loved. Thank you, Creator, for those blessings.
That’s the end of my coma story – one month in my life ten years ago that has affected me dramatically ever since. I’ve been more open and candid, and gone into more detail in these posts about it than I ever have before, and I have learnt things about myself in the process. I hope you were interested reading about it too. I may revisit the story from time to time to mention some of the lighter parts of it, but I think I am done with it now. Time to move on and embrace the rest of my life. Thanks for reading. x