Sitting Beside a Coma

Cee has written the first part of her coma story, and I thought I’d write my side of it… what it’s like to sit beside the bed of someone you love dearly while they lie in a coma and on a ventilator.

Coma. What an intimidating word. When the doctors tell you that your loved one has slipped into a coma, your world implodes. Everything crashes in and smothers you. You can’t breathe, can’t think. You’re not exactly sure what the word means, but you know it’s bad. Very, very bad.

Fortunately, we were in a Trauma teaching hospital. The Emergency department was top notch. I had a whole cadre of caring doctors who taught me a lot about comas.

Rule 1: People in a coma can hear, so be careful what you say around them.

The ear is the only part of the human body that can’t be anesthetized. It’s always listening. I was taught to keep conversation upbeat. When we had to discuss scary procedures and even scarier outcomes, we took the conversation out into the hall or a conference room.

When I was sitting with Cee and couldn’t think of anything to say to her (a one-sided conversation that goes on for days is hard to sustain), I’d read a book. When I couldn’t be there, I’d set a CD player on repeat and load up inspiring music. We had a great CD that had all the Star Trek themes on it. So good to listen to! Or I’d play the soundtracks to the movies “Apollo 13” or “Everest”. They were favorites of ours.

I came into the room one Sunday morning to hear what we call a “hell fire and brimstone” sermon playing loudly. A part time nurse had a belief that illness was the result of sin and had set the radio on a fundamentalist religious channel. The minister was screaming and pounding on the pulpit, ranting and raving about sin. I was appalled. This wasn’t part of our personal beliefs, and the sound of it was very frightening. That nurse had no right to force her beliefs on a comatose patient who couldn’t object, or turn off the radio. She was soon transferred to another part of the hospital.

Rule 2: You are watching a marathon, not a sprint. Be patient.

Comas are tricky. No one can really predict how long the body will need to heal, or when or how a person comes back to the world of the living. Time is usually on your side. Be patient.

Rule 3: You need to heal, too.

It takes time to recover from a coma. The body has just shut down in a desperate attempt to stay alive and heal. When you’re sitting beside a coma, you have to take good care of yourself because life won’t come back to normal, like on the TV shows and movies. There will be physical therapy and setbacks. So you have to eat, sleep, talk to others. I found a good psychologist right away, because I knew I needed to process this. I also talked with a minster, and found comfort in asking for others to pray for us.

Note from Cee: Photo above is Chris walking a labyrinth she made on the beach. When I was in my coma she made a labyrinth on our ranch and would walk it. We lived on a 35-acre ranch which made it easy to create the the labyrinth and she had a bench in the middle of it. She would also go out and scream out loud to relieve some of the energy.

The nurses would kick me out of ICU (the Intensive Care Unit) every morning (yes, I slept there all night in a recliner) and force me to go get breakfast. They’d bring me snacks when they could. I learned that it was okay to leave long enough to grab some food or run home to take a shower and change clothes. I was always afraid that something would go wrong and Cee would die alone. It was terrifying to go back to ICU after I’d been away because I was always afraid that I’d come to an empty room and someone would be telling me they were sorry but they did all that they could.

I did come back to an empty room once. There was blood, gauze and the wrappers from bandages all over the floor. My heart stopped. One of the nurses rushed in to tell me it was okay, that they had to start another IV and couldn’t find a vein. They had taken Cee down to radiology to place the IV and she’d be back up in a minute.

The thing is, you probably won’t realize the trauma you’re going through. Day after day of holding your breath takes a toll, believe me. You need to heal, too.

Rule 4: You Just Do!

One evening they brought a new patient into the ICU beside ours. I got to be friends with the man sitting beside the coma, a retired minister who was there with his second wife, the first having died of breast cancer. His wife was in a coma, had a tracheotomy and was dying of pancreatic cancer.

My new minister friend and I would go downstairs to the cafeteria whenever we could, just to grab a bite to eat, or something hot to drink. One evening I summoned my courage and asked him how he got through this. I was expecting some God-inspired, faith driven talk, him being a minister and all. After reflecting for a few moments, he looked at me sadly and said, “You just do. You just do.”

That took my breath away.

But he was right.

You just do.

More later….

Love, hugs and blessings.


15 thoughts on “Sitting Beside a Coma

  1. I can’t hit the ‘like’ button because this is all just so sad. But you (and the minister) are right. You just do…you do the best you can and that’s all anyone, including yourself, can ask.


  2. You are correct, hearing the word “coma” your mind thinks it has misheard somehow. It is at odds with life just earlier that day. And the slow recovery can be agonizing for the patient and for the loved one(s) to watch.


  3. oh wow Chris, thank you so much for sharing with us . . .so often no one asks about the experience of the other person, and yet their’s (as you beautifully demonstrate here) is just as important. So glad that nurse got moved, and that everyone else was so supportive. Sending love xxx


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