Life on the coma ward

I spent many hours of my life in the waiting area of a coma ward. Even though visiting hours were supposed to start at 4pm, they often got delayed. Some medical crisis, patient needing to be cleaned, new admission meant the lone little group of visitors were forced to stare at the blank walls or the well-kept aquarium. It principally housed two large fish, but one had a problem with his swim bladder, and was forced to swim upright in the same spot with no reprieve. It kept banging into the same coral and had lost most of its tail in the process. The other fish would continuously try to tempt it into a different part of the aquarium. The handicapped fish would try but would soon return to its familiar spot.

This tableau was perfectly set up to induce thoughts of futility and disappointment. The strange chemical smell added to it. It did actually smell like what I imagined decomposing human flesh smells like but surely was only extra-strength cleaner of some kind, specially engineered for intensive care units.

My mother, an intrepid walker just like myself, had set out one sunny morning for the vineyards, ignoring warnings of ice. She slipped, fell backward, resulting in unconsciousness and traumatic brain injury. Other walkers found her, nobody knows how long she’d been lying there. We were told she was in critical condition and might well not make it.

Driven by the thought, more than any other, that nobody should die alone, I got myself onto a plane, and began a lonely vigil.

A decision had been made to keep my mother in a coma, to prevent further pressure and irreversible damage. Hence, the coma ward. It held ten patients but was probably the quietest ward in the hospital. Apart from hushed conversations between nurses the main sounds were those of beeping indicators, feeding tubes into necks, waste products back out, with the occasional alarm signal when vital measurements went out of range. Occasionally, a family would put on some music for a patient, hoping that a familiar song would get even just a little response. Never has chirpy German Schlager music sounded so mordant.

After a few days this becomes your new normal. You begin to recognize familiar faces among the visitors. You notice which patients will occasionally twitch or even grunt, with some envy. Your mother is still. A machine is breathing for her. A drug drip keeps her far under – no detectable brain activity. You wonder what it feels like to be so far removed from the world. At first you’re shocked to see her like this, but then you get used to her condition. You begin to talk to her under your breath. You never really got on all that well. But you don’t want her to die either. So you lay out how you feel, holding her hand all the while to let her know that someone’s there, no matter which path she chooses to take.

Hours go by. Nobody talks to you. You get to see the doctors once in a while. They are young and full of fear. They do not like being the bearers of bad news. There is really only question you want to know – “what’s her Glasgow Coma Score?” – but you dread the answer, so you don’t ask. You suspect it’s a 3, the lowest. Just a bit more alive than dead.

At night, with nothing to do, unable to sleep, and no-one around, you try hard not to Google “GCS 3, prognosis“, but you do. The words “dismal” jump out at you. Only a few percent who make it through in a non-vegetative state. You can’t sleep. You think the phone will ring any minute. You are tired, pale, a spectre. The hospital sent back the clothes they cut off her. Destroyed they lie there like the person they belong to. The shoes that let her down lie there innocently. Killer shoes.

You begin to crave the calm sanctuary of the coma ward. It’s the only safe place. The only place where you know right at that moment that everything is still OK, everything still in balance, the cards not upturned yet. Order, not chaos.

After ten days, one of your sisters comes to take over the grim vigil. You go to the movies and drink a glass of cheap supermarket wine. So strange – there is a life outside this self-contained little universe?

Anyway, my mother woke up from her coma (slowly and un-soap-opera-like) and has gradually recovered most of her faculties. She can’t walk well and still needs constant care, but she’s mostly herself and pretty chipper. She credits me for getting her through that narrow passage, but she’s wrong.