Last night, I was reading a book our office just received called The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law. Since I am currently struggling mightily with exactly how to do this, I was interested to see what the authors had to say. I skipped around and started with the chapter “Happiness: A Primer,” which basically reviews what scientific research, particularly neuroscience, has to say about happiness.
Well, you’d think by now that I would know to stop at “neuroscience.” But I didn’t. I don’t even think a red light went on. I just kept reading innocently enough.
Until I reached a section about the three different “brains” and the functions of each. I didn’t get past the first paragraph. All because of one simple sentence:
“The brainstem controls heartbeat, respiration, body temperature, and other essential functions.”
In an instant, I was transported right back to those wretched three days in the PICU. I was right there by Hudson’s bedside when the nurses would disconnect her ventilator tube momentarily to change its position or clean something out or moisten her gums and lips with ointment. During those 10 seconds or so, I stared as Hudson’s chest just lay flat, unmoving, no breaths going in or out. And then they would put the vent back on, and her chest would start rising and falling again, in an all-too-regular rhythm.
In eleven short words, I was right back there by Hudson’s bedside on Wednesday morning when the PICU nurse asked me, “Does she feel cool to you?” Cool? Why would she feel cool? I touched her forehead and her tummy and she didn’t feel particularly cool to me. They took her temperature and it was below 90 degrees. (I remember thinking what kind of mother was I that I hadn’t noticed this?) They went to work immediately trying to raise it. The nurse tried to fish out the ibuprofen suppository she’d just given Hudson within the last 30 minutes. They covered her with a warming blanket, which looked like a big, clear, pool float. It was very hard to keep in one place and made it difficult to lie down and snuggle with her. They insulated her IV tubes with warmers so that the fluids they were pumping into her would help raise her temperature quickly. They put her on a continuous temperature monitor so they could keep track. About an hour before this, the neurologists had done some reflex tests and gotten no responses, but those results were completely invalid since Hudson was probably hypothermic at the time. While this momentarily gave me some hope, I quickly realized that the fact that her brain was apparently not even doing a most basic function of maintaining her body temperature was independently a very bad sign.
In one tiny sentence, I was right back there in the armchair by Hudson’s bed on Thursday afternoon as the nurses gingerly moved her into my lap and arms so that I could hold her on that last day. Her blood pressure kept dropping, making the monitor sound off ominously, until the nurses realized that one of the joints on her central line was cracked, so the medicine that was controlling her blood pressure was unstable. It was then that the attending physician asked us if we wanted them to take any extreme measures to prevent her from crashing if her body had decided it was time to stop. We said no.
“The brainstem controls heartbeat, respiration, body temperature, and other essential functions.” I read that one sentence and immediately, my own heart started racing as I remembered how Hudson’s brainstem slowly ceased doing any of those things. I got up from where I was reading, went downstairs to the room where Hudson’s memorial table is, and there, with the light off, I just let myself be back in that place. I was there for several minutes, crying and taking deep breaths in the dark, just letting it be. And then I felt better.
I have wondered many times about whether I have been experiencing some form of PTSD since our stay in the PICU and Hudson’s resulting death. I’ve certainly read articles about parents who spent time in the ICU with their children suffering from PTSD (and that was in cases where the child did not ultimately die). I don’t know enough about the condition to say so one way or the other. The main symptom of PTSD I have experienced is this repeated reliving of the worst moments of those awful days. And while I have certainly experienced some other symptoms of PTSD, none have been so dramatic or affecting as these flashbacks, and none have been truly incapacitating.
What I can say, though, is that even as recently as a few months ago, the flashbacks I had last night would have sent me into a downward spiral that might have lasted for several days. I wouldn’t have stopped crying after a few minutes. I would have crawled into bed and been up half the night continuing to relive those moments over and over again in my head until I succumbed to a fitful sleep. This time, the worst of it was over within several minutes and the only lingering after-effect was yet another anxiety dream (this one involving Bess repeatedly running into the street even as I called to her over and over again—even though it was Bess in the dream, it was definitely a dream about Hudson). Otherwise, I slept relatively well, woke up feeling okay, and have managed to make it through writing this post without falling apart again.
I realize that I’ve written about some of the moments included in this post several times already. I guess I am only just now grasping the real power of telling my story over and over again. I don’t know if the flashbacks themselves will ever go away, but over time, their quality has changed, their grip on me has lessened. And for that, I am incredibly grateful.