Today on ICU rounds, and over the course of my subsequent 12-hour shift, I learn any number of medical skills and facts. The one observation that sticks with me the most, however, is this: in the end, we are all the same.
In bed 2, a 54-year-old first-grade teacher and mother of three boys is orange as a carrot from the jaundice caused by metastasis to her liver. She is the kind of woman you instantly recognize as a mother from her warm smile and understanding nod. This mother who spent her life caring for others now lies weakened by cancer in that bulky hospital bed being cared for by others.
A little farther down the hall you'll find the 30-year-old manager of a local wings restaurant who has never had health issues, until his own body recently started destroying the pancreatic beta cells necessary for insulin production. He lies weakened from days of vomiting, breathing deep and fast as his lungs attempt to compensate for the dangerous metabolic acidosis his hyperglycemia has caused.
Two more doors down, a daughter sits weeping as she watches her mother struggle to breathe because of the massive pleural effusion complicating her already dire stage 4 cancer. Her mom grabs my hand as I round and whispers, “I'm so tired, I just want to go home.”
If you can gather the strength to continue through the rest of the unit, you'll meet bankers and stay-at-home mothers, engineers and electricians, sisters and husbands, uncles and grandmothers. Some are fighting their own demons as they withdraw from drugs or alcohol. Others are fighting cancerous tumors or strange viruses, and others are fighting against their own body as it attacks itself and shuts down. Really, though, they—we—are all the same.
They all dread painful procedures. They all gain strength from having a family member there to visit. They all miss their own bed, have favorite memories they want to share, shed tears of fear or sorrow, and all are faced with their own fragility. Although I am not confined to an ICU bed, I am no different from them in these matters. I too miss my bed when I am away from home. I too feel encouraged from time spent with family and feel sad if I'm alone. I too have favorite memories that I enjoy replaying and sharing. I too feel fear and sorrow and dread pain.
And so, in my mind, the woman in bed 4 is not just a patient—she is my mother or my sister, and the man in room 8 is my husband or my cousin. I seek to care for patients in the same way that I hope someone will care for me when my time comes. I look them in the eye, and listen, and respond in a way that I hope demonstrates our connection. As I round in the ICU, I remember that I too am fragile. I am not immune from any of the viruses, cancers, or tragic accidents that these patients have faced, and there will come a day when I too am weakened by age, disease, or injury. It comes for all of us. We are all the same.