“The greatest of these is love.” ~1 Corinthians 13:13
I was in a hospital bed in the ICU. I had a breathing tube in my mouth. The scene was all too familiar. I could see a ventilator next to the bed and IV pouches hanging on thin poles behind me. I’ve seen this movie before, only this time it was slightly different. Instead of being in a private room, there was a patient right next to me. The patient was my nephew Stevie.
I remember being in the same situation years earlier after a heart attack. But, I didn’t know what happened to me this time around. A doctor dressed in a white smock came into the room and explained to little Steve what was ailing him. I had a bunch of questions and tried to get the doctor’s attention, but I couldn’t move my hands or talk. The doctor walked away as soon as he finished treating my nephew.
I had no clue why I was in the hospital and on a ventilator again. I turned to ask Stevie what the doctor said, but he was sound asleep. I knew what happened to me last time. I had a heart attack, went into cardiac arrest, and my lungs stopped working. Was it happening again? Could I still be in the ICU because I never recovered from the incident years ago? Was I having a nightmare? Feeling scared, confused, and lonely, I started to get really anxious.
Just as the full-blown panic started to ravage my mind and body, the doctor returned and said, “Mr. Garcia, your family is here to visit you.” When I turned to see who it was, Sandra’s beautiful smiling face leaned toward me. I suddenly felt safe and slowly closed my eyes to fall into a deep and comfortable sleep.
The passage above is in italics because it really didn’t happen. It was a hallucination caused by a condition called ICU Delirium. Doctors aren’t quite sure what causes ICU Delirium, but they think it’s related to physical restraints and heavy sedatives used when putting a patient on a ventilator. Since the dreams are based on actual events, the vivid images feel terrifyingly realistic. The combination of those factors creates a psychological nightmare for patients.
If you’re interested in learning more about ICU Delirium, go to this link https://www.statnews.com/2016/10/14/icu-delirium-hospitals/ for a great description of the condition. This article has special relevance today when ventilators and lung ailments dominate the news.
I suffered ICU Delirium twice, once in 2010 and again in 2018. The hallucination described in italics above occurred during my second time in the ICU. The numerous delusions I experienced both times had a common theme: I was stuck in a strange place unable to move, talk, or call for help. Just as panic and desperation set in, Sandra showed up to let me know that everything would be okay.
Sandra stayed by my bedside throughout both ordeals. When she left the ICU to visit the waiting room, eat, or shower, I must have sensed that she was no longer in the room even though I was nearly unconscious. The loneliness of her not being nearby played out in hallucinations caused by ICU Delirium. The connection the delusions had to reality is without question.
In my last two posts, I discussed how Affection (family love) and Friendship have played roles in saving my life during my decade-long health crisis. Both terms were introduced by Christian philosopher C.S. Lewis in his book, The Four Loves. The incoherent visions I shared in the accounts from the ICU demonstrate how Eros (romantic love), the third type of love described by Lewis, has helped me live longer and thrive.
Lewis explains that in the modern sense Eros is far too often connected with sex. I can say with some authority that most men can’t disconnect the two. Lewis clarifies for us that romantic love is “simply a delighted preoccupation with the Beloved.” While attached to life-support machines and drunk with heavy sedative medication, I had an intense romantic desire to be with Sandra. Not desire in the sexual sense, rather in the spirit of C.S. Lewis.
In The Four Loves, he wrote, “If you asked (a man) what he wanted, the true reply would often be, ‘To go on thinking of her.’” Surviving those scary dreams in the ICU brings to mind St. Paul’s assurance that suffering, endurance, and character lead to hope. Thinking about Sandra during my weakest and most vulnerable moments gave me hope and inspiration when I needed them most.
As singer Tina Turner rhetorically asked, “What’s love got to do with it?” As it turns out, love has everything to do with surviving and thriving through life’s challenges.
The lessons I learned can be used to help weather nearly any storm that causes people to suffer. We must take into account the definition of Eros in its totality, not just from the perspective of sex. Romantic love is the foundation of a strong relationship. Bonded by this strength, families can face the toughest of challenges.
Managing through the current era of isolation and social distancing is a good example of how Eros can be the difference between mere survival and triumph over tragedy. While we’re “stuck” in the house with our beloved, nerves are frayed and patience wears thin. But, we persist in social distancing because, according to Lewis, we have a “steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good.”
Psychologically and emotionally, I’m struggling with the pandemic. Images of COVID-19 patients on ventilators brings back dark memories of my own experience on life support. My compromised condition calls for me to stay isolated in the house, especially when Sandra and Erica were fighting colds last month. These measures run contrary to my natural desire for social interaction.
Sitting down for dinner, even if more than 6 feet apart, or taking a walk wearing surgical masks and staying a safe distance away from each other justify the hours of isolation. I know that I’ll be okay. I’ve done this before. Love produces strength from moments of weakness.
C.S. Lewis said it more eloquently. He wrote that love “will not be broken; it’s unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”