Loved Ones and Intubation—The Consequences of Covid-19

My mother’s experience fighting leukemia resulted in a nine-day period of induced coma and intubation. For those who have grown weary of Covid restrictions and refuse to get vaccinated, this story may provide the proper motivation to do the right thing.

If you have never spoken to someone who survived intubation, and yet you’re weary of vaccines or Covid restrictions, I ask that you please read this article.

Forget the number of deaths, Dr. Faucci’s rationale for using masks, or infection rates. Neither of these subjects illustrate the end result, the consequences in a visceral manner. When your loved one is intubated and survives, and he/she shares the experience, you will have all the motivation you need to do your part to prevent the spread of Covid.

I share this family story with great hesitation because it is so personal and reveals the trauma my mother went through four months prior to losing her fight with Leukemia. It’s time to do so. What I witnessed forever changed me.

When a nurse at Memorial Sloan Kettering tells you to start, “Making arrangements” the day your mother is intubated, it represents the moment when you realize you biggest advocate, your mother, is no longer the head of the family.

Five months prior, in December 2016, my mother shared the news of her diagnosis. Leukemia, to sum up the disease in laymen’s terms, is a cancer of the bone—specifically the marrow of the bone that produces white blood cells that fight infection. Without healthy white blood cells, you’re susceptible to everything, so the process begins with chemotherapy to eliminate one’s ability to produce cancerous white blood cells.

My mother did not fight her way through the process, so soared through it. Genetically, she was healthy as an ox as she inherited her mother’s genes. My grandmother lived to 94 due in large part from clean living, zero tobacco use, and limited alcohol consumption.

My mother quit smoking around the time she turned 35 and lived a healthy life for nearly 40 more. Without a definitive answer, one can only assume her past caught up with her as my mom’s pack-a-day habit eventually left its mark. She spent her 74th birthday in the midst of a two-month stay at a local hospital.

By the time she was released, she was ready for the next stage—a marrow transplant—if she was able to find a suitable genetic match among marrow donors. Her numbers, specifically her white blood counts, were stabilized from blood transfusions.

I’ll flash forward to late April 2017, a month into her second long-term hospital stay, this time at Memorial Sloan in New York City. Her leukemia surged back and she went through the chemotherapy process again in an effort to stabilize herself for a potential marrow transfusion.

By this time, I was torn apart and concerned about why she was going through this again as I shuffled back and forth between my home in New Jersey, my job in lower Manhattan, and the hospital on the east side of Manhattan. All the while, I was trying to be a good husband and loving parent to my three-year-old son, Connor.

Sleep was a rarity. When you’re trying to do right by your mother, son, wife, boss, and yourself, you represent the last person on the priority list.

I was scheduled to travel to Austin for a business conference that would last several days. When I went to visit her beforehand, she was not herself. It didn’t stem from a minor head injury she experienced (a late-night spill in the hospital). She appeared to be genuinely sick: lethargic, unsure of herself, and cognitively dazed. The only other time she was this ill was during my teenage years when she fought the flu… more than 30 years prior.

That was after four months of chemotherapy treatments in less than half a year. The best gift she was given in life was her health… until that morning when her body turned against her.

Sepsis had taken root, yet it was too early for the doctors and nurses to tell. From their perspective, she was responding like regular people do to chemo treatments.

The following day, I got the call from the nurse alerting me that she had been up the entire night in agony. I left work promptly and rushed to Memorial Sloan.

This is the moment when you, as the caretaker, try to prepare yourself for the inevitable. However, The speed of events moves so fast your brain cannot process developments. You’re a passenger in a car driving at max RPMs and you have no control of the wheel.

This likely takes place when Covid strikes, so again, I’ll state that I am writing this for those who do not comprehend what it is like to see a relative go through what I am about to share.

When I arrived and saw her in the bed, my jaw dropped. She was clutching her stomach, moaning, and in more pain compared to anything I have ever witnessed. She was rambling on about things she needed to do, to address, to do immediately yet she had no one else but me to do them for her. I tried to comfort her but there was nothing I could do. To see your mother go through this, the person that raised you as a single parent, is on par with somone hitting you over the head with a hammer.

She went on ad nauseum rambling about plans for this, for that, anything, in what seemed like her last chance to get everything right before she left this world. She had been in complete denial about her eventual demise. And who would doubt her – five days prior, she was gliding through chemo to get to the next stage of treatment. It was Thursday, yet the Sunday prior, she was well enough to bicker with me over the phone.

I was pulled out of the room and informed by the Doctors that intubation represented her only chance for survival.

It’s ironic when I think about what she asked me to do, and the life we shared together. I recall long to-do lists when I came home from college, stemming in part from the fact she never remarried and there was “man work” around the house to tackle (to use her term). Moving eighty-pound bags of water-softener salt, resealing the driveway, mowing the lawn every week: that was the price of admission during my college summers when I came home, which in some twisted way, was tied to the price of college admissions itself: hard labor… for having gone through the labor of birthing me. Need I say our relationship resembled ‘tough love,’ literally and figuratively.

Now, I was holding my mother’s last honey-do list.

She was induced and sent to the intensive care unit, unconscious, and would remain so for nearly nine days. That afternoon included the nurse’s suggestion that I make final arrangements and to call relatives.

After another four hours of waiting, I was able to see my mother in the room. When they pulled back the curtain I was horrified. For the first time, I saw my mother without her wig. Hairless, her head twitching, and the tube they placed rested within her mouth and extended into her lungs. Her eyes opened and closed quickly, seeming awake but not. Five monitors were beside her, and outside the room, the nurse monitored all readings from behind the glass. My mom was strapped down as well to ensure her arms or legs didn’t flail.

Bald… tubes everywhere… her head bobbing… random beeps and the pressing sound of the breathing apparatus: intubation doesn’t discriminate. It’s brutal. Not for the patient as he/she is unconscious, but for the loved ones. I was beside myself.

For seven days I returned to speak to the nurse. They were inching her along back to health, using any and all medications to fight the disease, which represents a bacterial infection within the body. Memorial Sloan provided exceptional care. They literally watched her, one nurse/one patient at a time, 24/7.

My uncle came down to say her goodbyes. My wife joined me in the room on day #2 and I wept beside her. I had that damn honey-do list that kept me running around to tie up her loose ends when I wasn’t at the hospital and my boss, thankfully, gave me the space I needed. That may sound inconsequential but I was the sole breadwinner, so the need to do my job lingered in the back of my mind.

They slowly eased her back to life. And on the seventh day (which sounds like a biblical reference as I write this), she was healthy enough to get off life support and out of her induced coma.

That was on Saturday, the only day I didn’t go into the city. I made arrangements to be with her the following day.

This coincided with a national holiday – Mother’s Day. If one were to write a screenplay, a movie about this experience, of course it would be a cliché for the plot’s crescendo to take place on Mother’s Day, but it did.

When I went to see her, she could not speak, only point, make eye contact, and she had sores on her face and bruises on her hands. She lost some weight but the color in her face was markedly healthier.

It took several more days for her to speak.

My mother was never the same thereafter: a bit slower, and the fight in her was gone. The only way to describe her condition thereafter – she was coasting. Her priorities changed from top to bottom. How does one go through that and not come out on the other end with a completely different perspective about life itself?

You never want to see a loved one go through this, let alone hear the stories they share about the delusions they experience while intubated. The stories my mother shared, her mental experience during coma, were nightmarish and they haunted her for the next 4 months prior to her passing away. They were embedded in her psyche. She couldn’t get over it.

This is what haunts people who experience intubation if they are lucky enough to survive. It’s a lesson for everyone right now. Encourage your loved ones to get vaccinated, keep a mask handy, use sanitizers if you will be around the elderly, social distance—do what you can to prevent the spread of Covid. If you save even one person from experiencing intubation or death, you can consider yourself a decent human being.

And moving forward, if you have a relative or friend who talks about conspiracy theories or wants more proof that the vaccine acutually works, note that 97% of those infected today were not vaccinated. Speak up.

We are responsible for one another’s health. Anything less could put someone’s life at risk.

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