You are not alone

Does this picture look familiar? I don’t mean have you seen this certain place before, but do you know what it means? Let me make it a bit clearer for you.

It could mean a few things.

That this room has functioned as your bedroom – as you slept in an uncomfortable chair overnight, waiting for news.

Or your living room – while you gathered around the television with a few other loved ones. Probably watching the same commercials on the same channel all day…because why would the remote control work anyway?

Perhaps it was a dining room – when you ate that pizza someone brought you which was, at one point, warm. But you weren’t really in the mood to eat when it arrived. It could have gone from warm meal to cold sustenance while you were busy hunting someone down, trying to get answers. Or you had a few stolen moments, in the room, holding your loved one’s hand.

Maybe it was a dressing room – where you quickly changed into that fresh change of clothes that someone brought you. And by 3 am, you just couldn’t be bothered to make it all the way to the bathroom to do so.

It could have doubled as a playroom – filled with crayons, toys, children’s books and anything else you could think of to keep the younger family members occupied. It may be a way to keep them occupied and shield them from the situation. Or maybe you just want to ensure they will be quiet enough to not wake the other family sleeping in the room.

It also may have served as your kitchen – where you unload a loaf of bread and lunch meat for sandwiches, a bag of chips, or those plastic baggies full of celery and carrots, because you just couldn’t stomach the idea of another trip to the salad bar downstairs. And also because you have eaten mashed potatoes and something covered in gravy at least 4 times in the past 48 hours, from the cafeteria.

The waiting room of an Intensive Care Unit turns into many things. But it’s more than what we just covered. It’s where you meet new people, where you hear other family’s stories, where you start to pray for people you haven’t – and will probably never – meet. It’s where you read, check your email, laugh, cry, search out a box of tissues that always seem to vanish when you need them most, and forge relationships that are real, necessary, and comforting – even if they’re fleeting.

The ICU of any hospital is a maze of nurses, doctors, beeping noises that make you jump from your skin whenever you hear them, IV poles, yellow gowns and masks, and long awaited information. But it’s also a place you don’t spend that much time in.

The main block of your time is spent in the waiting room. Where people you have never met before that day come back and rejoice in their good news. It isn’t uncommon to celebrate a hand movement or eye flutter of someone else’s loved one. It’s where we share our victories, where we hug someone whose name we haven’t even heard when they hear bad news. This big (or sometimes too small) room quickly becomes the center of your universe. It’s where we share our leftovers with the family next to us, and silently thank the people before us when we discover they left packets of salt and pepper when we finally sit down to eat and realize we have none.

If you’ve ever spent an extended amount of time with a loved one in an ICU, you’ll know what it’s like to have accumulated so many bags that you have to figure out a plan of action to get them all out of the hospital in one swoop, when you decide to go home for the evening. And you’ll know why we sometimes have found ourselves at the funeral of someone who we have never met, just to squeeze the hand of their wife and remind them that we were there for the good and the bad part of their journey – and even though we may never see them again – we cared for them. We prayed for them. We traded recipes with their daughters, picked up tacos to share with their sons, and still remember how their brother likes his coffee if we’re going to pick some up.

Race and sex mean nothing when you’re stripped down to your bare emotions. Age and language barriers are no match for a quick nod toward the tv while the news flashes across the screen and a look that says – what is the world coming to? We all speak the same language when we’re wrapped up in hospital blankets. And we share quick tips on who will bring you pillows at 2 am when you decide that tonight just doesn’t seem like a good night to go home.

Sometimes the room is empty. And it feels lonely. It’s when you’re left alone with all your own thoughts, worries, and hopes. But don’t worry. We’ve been there. We know the conversations you’ve had in the chair by the window. We remember which tv remote actually does work. We can find the tissues for you when you need them, even if it means digging through one of our ten bags we have with us. But most importantly – you aren’t alone. Because we have been there.

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