Our lives changed forever the instant Amanda collapsed in front of me on 1st Feb 2017.
Amidst the drama and fear of those first few minutes, that was my first practical, coherent thought.
“This will change who we are forever.”
As soon as I accepted that, and the fact neither of us had any control whatsoever over our fate and what might happen in the coming hours and days, I allowed the experts to take control; and they did.
As I watched the air ambulance take off, carrying 2 pilots, a paramedic and my wife comatose on a stretcher, leaving me behind to find my own way to Wellington, I realised she was in the best possible hands. There was literally nothing my being on that plane could have done to make the situation better for either of us.
Once she was comfortable on the Intensive Care ward, with a nurse at the foot of her bed 24 hours a day, taking notes, keeping her comfortable, checking her vital signs and administering the drugs which were protecting her brain and saving her life, all I could do was sit.
I realised I had to maintain my own routine. I didn’t sit and watch her all day at home, so why would I need to stare at her (or at her heart/breathing monitor) at 3a.m.?
I quickly decided I should treat her hospital stay like a job. Arrive at 9 in the morning, take regular breaks including an hour for lunch, and then leave by 5 in the afternoon.
I had complete faith in Amanda’s willpower and ability to wake up, get better and eventually leave hospital. I was wary of setting a precedent of being there beside her every time she opened her eyes, because our ‘normal life’ wasn’t like that.
So in spite of her unconscious state I would make a point of telling her what time of the day it was before going to get a coffee or taking the lunch which I prepared every morning out into the sunny courtyard where other visitors, staff and even patients sat to eat and relax for a few minutes.
I also had complete faith in the staff. They were the dedicated, trained professionals. Of course by the end of the first week I considered myself to be a fully competent ICU nurse as well, since by then I had observed every possible procedure they could have carried out on Amanda, so naturally I was an expert!
In the evening I enjoyed the distraction of cooking dinner at my daughter’s flat where I was lucky enough to stay, just a 10 minute cab ride from the hospital. I was in bed by 10pm, but not before phoning the ward to check on how Amanda had been in the intervening hours. Because of how ill she was her bed was opposite the ward desk. I knew the nurse I was speaking to could look directly across and see her.
Up by 7 the next morning, the first thing I would do was phone the ward again. A different nurse would scan the notes from overnight and update me.
On day three, a nurse gave me a yellow A5 book. Keeping a diary would be a good way of letting go of the events, the ups and downs of each day. It might also help in the future, to recall these early days, when Amanda would eventually have questions about all these days which were somehow missing from her memory. I just re-checked that diary and I see I managed an entry for each of the days we were in Wellington.
Familiarity and routine kept me going for those 23 days. The repetition of basic tasks meant I could save my mental energy for the occasional unexpected event. So when I received a phone call mid-mornng as I was sauntering back from a rare trip into central Wellington, to say Amanda was being airlifted back to Nelson in 45 minutes, the stored energy and tenacity reserves kicked in. I ran back to Jess’ flat, grabbed my things, grabbed Jess and grabbed an Uber and arrived at the hospital with 20 minutes to spare.
So when people asked me how I was doing, I was doing OK, thank you.
I stayed focussed on my routine and even more so on my wife. When visitors asked me about the other critically ill patients I didn’t know. I didn’t care. They were not my reason for being there; Amanda was.
After the first week, each day I looked at her and thought ‘if this was as good as she got, could we cope?’ When I found myself thinking ‘yes we could’ then as she made progress each day got a little easier than the one before.
Nothing can ever prepare you for what happened to us in those first few weeks. I found the trick was to try and step away for a moment and look down on the situation, to analyse it from outside and try and think what the next step might be and prepare for it. I also made myself a part of her care team. The doctors and nurses and other medical staff would explain to me, consult with me and ask me, as the person who knew Amanda best, what she might need, or how she might be feeling or had I noticed improvement when they had missed it?.
Around us some other patients had large extended families weeping and wailing around their beds. That was helping no – one.
The aim was for Amanda to recover, not be grieve over her.
So far its working…