Visiting a parent in intensive care could be an opportunity to tell them you love them. Or, talk about the weather instead - Gaby Soutar

A trip to this unit is different from a regular ward.

Equipped intensive care unit of modern hospital, unfocused background.
Equipped intensive care unit of modern hospital, unfocused background.

It’s been a tough fortnight for my 80-something mum.

She went into hospital for a routine operation, which turned into septic shock while she was under general anaesthetic.

Thus, her visit went from a relatively casual overnight procedure, to something much more serious.

Thanks to ongoing health concerns, and an accident or two, this isn’t the first hospital stay she’s endured over the last couple of years. There's been half a dozen, but this is the only one that’s landed her in the intensive care unit. That strange and sterile antechamber between life and death. The ward that my dad never left.

It all got a bit scary back there, when the next of kin got a night time phone call from a consultant, preparing us for the worst case scenario.

After a few rocky days of fluctuating blood pressure, she bounced back. The Soutar DNA is like a Slinky made of titanium.

The relief. However, I won’t let my guard down until she’s home and gently slotted into the well worn nook of her armchair. I will get the bubble wrap from the garage, and swathe her in it, tucking her tightly in round the sides, as if she’s a crystal candlestick.

Visiting her in ICU has been very different from the usual ward visits, which my sister and I are well versed in. You can schedule your appearance for most times of day, and they don’t seem to mind if you constantly ring to check how she’s doing. They are un-phased by the fact she can’t work her own mobile phone. Still, my ever optimistic sister insisted that she take it, so it remains plugged in and unanswered on the shelf. It’s as much use as packing an iron or a watering can in her overnight hospital bag.

The care in this place is one-on-one, so she’s monitored like a neonate and there’s always a lovely nurse who knows her blood pressure and heart rate.

I’m especially fond of the one who always tells me she’s “grand” - a word that I find sturdy and reassuring. It makes me imagine her as an unsinkable galleon, which she kind of is.

At first, the initial seriousness of the situation made our usual lighthearted quality of chat feel utterly inadequate

When something like this happens, you want to tell the person how much you adore them, what a wonderful parent they are, and how happy you are to see their face.

Perhaps there will be tears and you want to cheer as you go into the ward and they actually open their eyes, when you didn’t imagine that they would even be conscious.

This could be your opportunity to ask them all the big questions: about how it felt to be teetering on the precipice. But, no.

Instead, we talk about the bread at home, and if it’ll be mouldy or not by the time she gets back. I think it’s safe to say that it’ll be neat penicillin. It may have grown legs and walked out of the house on its own. Then there's the weather and work. We look out a Biro and tick what she wants on the daily menu form. Although her appetite is still operational, she hates filling it out.

I love it, so help her choose. Tuna sandwich? Macaroni cheese? Chicken jalfrezi?

We tick them all. That covers us for another couple of days. If I can schedule these meals, I feel like I can guarantee that she will definitely be here to eat them.

She wants to hear about The Lion King. Once we knew that granny was stable, we took my niece to see it for her ninth birthday. We’d already bought the tickets and it seemed like an opportunity for distraction. I don’t mention that I was thinking about her kidneys when I should have been concentrating on the giraffes and elephants that were picking their way across The Playhouse carpets. I didn’t even notice when Mufasa was trampled. Didn’t really care, to be honest.

We try to switch on the telly and fiddle with the subtitles. Not that there’s anyone to bother about the volume, since she has her own room.

This screen is a distraction from the machines that monitor her every vital sign. Their brightly coloured readings look like some contemporary John Cage-esque score. If you played it at the right tempo, this might unveil the meaning of existence, unravel time or unlock eternal life. Or maybe it’d be a verse of Monty Python’s Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. Whenever they toot and flash, which is regularly, I jump, until I realise it was my fault, for continually grabbing her hand and knocking one of her cannulas.

In ICU, they’re also kind about visitors bringing gifts, so one day I take a punnet of Fife strawberries, since you’re not allowed to take flowers.

These heart-shaped fruits fill the room with their ripe and sweet fragrance, and the nurses comment on the mutant size of them.

While there are huge strawberries, there’s hope.

NB: They say she’s getting out soon. I’ll have to look out the bubble wrap.


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