By Mary Cucarola – 4/19/20
“While I welcome those memories that have been invited, I will eventually close the door on those which haunt me.” ~Molly Fumia, Safe Passage
Mechanical ventilators have become a symbol of the COVID-19 pandemic, representing the last best hope to survive for people who can no longer draw a life sustaining breath. Hearing about the shortage of ventilators and seeing people on TV intubated with ventilators has brought about intense anxiety and stress for me.
Some days the memories still knock the wind out of me.
His eyes are open, and he has a breathing tube down his throat. He is hooked up to a ventilator. His eyes dart toward me when I walk into the ICU room. He points at the tube and desperately wants it out. I see it is very uncomfortable, and I feel it in my throat, too. I always feel his pain, as if it were my own. When I look into his eyes, I see my baby boy struggling to stay alive.
If ingested in sufficient quantity, opioid overdose can result in respiratory depression and necessitate intubation and mechanical ventilation. In one study, 23% of overdose patients required ventilation and fatal outcome was 6% of those cases.
The ICU nurse walks into his room and tells me he is very lucky to be alive. I thank her for saving my son – she gives me a look of disapproval I understand. He keeps trying to yank out the tube, but its not ready to come out yet she tells me. I nod my head. I ask her if she has his insurance information and she nods back.
The similarities between coronavirus crisis and the opioid epidemic are striking. COVID-19 kills quickly, inhibiting a person’s ability to breathe. It doesn’t discriminate on race, social class, gender, geography, age, or education. There are some differences, though. Nearly one million people have died from drug overdose in our country, and it comes with the stigma they are bad people or have bad parents, which isn’t true.
When the coronavirus crept up in early March, and ventilators were all the talk, I felt a tightening in my chest and the memory of my son on a ventilator became an emotional flashback. I already felt stressed with the social distancing changes being forced on me, and I didn’t want to deal with this past trauma, too. Self-isolation can be a recipe for depression, and the memory kept coming back.
I walk back into his room. They have his hands tied down, so he can’t yank out his tube. I wince at the sight of him being restrained. I remind myself that my son has a chronic illness, and I go over to his bed and whisper I love him. I promise the tube won’t be in much longer. He relaxes a bit, and I stay with him until the breathing tube is taken out.
For a while, I quit doing all of the things I usually do and kind of froze up. I was glued to the news for most of the day, which was not helpful. Duh. I started eating all day long. I knew I had to deal with the memory as it was multiplying the stress I already felt. I needed to look at my more basic needs, like self-care.
What I was dealing with was the replay of the fear, helplessness, and sadness I felt at the time of his overdose. I felt myself in a free fall, reliving the past. I tried to distract myself with overworking/helping to get out of the discomfort, which is my usual reaction – to focus on others, instead of myself. I was eating away my feelings.
I knew I had to sit with my difficult feelings and let them pass – something I learned to do in grief counseling. I leaned into the ventilator memory instead of avoiding it. Grief is always bigger than me and I know I can’t manage it. The only way to survive it is to allow it to happen.
I am still frustrated with the social distancing and economic effects of this crisis, and I am lucky that I haven’t lost anyone to the virus. This is not a retreat or a rainy day; it is a pandemic, but we will be eating in restaurants and going to the gym again. I acknowledged the coronavirus fear was nothing compared to the fear of losing my son.
The world will be put back together. I am hoping not exactly like it was because, in my opinion, it has been unraveling for quite some time. The clean air as a result of social distancing has been uplifting. The sacrifice and dedication I see the health care workers giving to coronavirus patients is a sign of immeasurable courage – one we should never forget or take for granted. They are all heroes and inspire me.
As I reflect on this crisis, I know we must value human strength over the strength of the stock market. We are all in this together, even in our isolation. We are finding many creative ways to connect and keep physical distancing intact. There are a lot of people right now suffering with anxiety and depression for the same or different reasons as mine. We must reach out for help and care for ourselves.
The brokenness of losing my son is a part of me I have to take care of no matter what the present-day circumstances are. When memories come back to haunt me, I have to deal with them first, and then close the door. Healing is always a push toward others, but not abandonment of the most valuable healer – the self.
Self-care may not seem like much, but when the future is uncertain, it can be an essential form of love, and love is always the most powerful antidote to fear.
Mary Cucarola – 4/19/20