A Strength She Never Knew She Had

With her husband in the ICU, she needed to be strong. But that was always his role.

- Posted on Oct 10, 2014

Peggy with her husband, Mike

The ER was frantic with activity. But I stood paralyzed with fear so overwhelming I wasn’t sure I could take another breath, as if it were me who was dying, not my husband.

Mike lay motionless on a stretcher, so pale he almost blended into the sheets. His eyes were glazed over, not moving.

“Heart rate’s twenty-seven beats a minute,” I heard someone call out in an urgent voice. “He’s in shock!”

A tall doctor tried to start an IV in Mike’s thigh. Blood ran down onto the floor. I stared at the pooling stain. Mike, no... The room spun. The alarms of the machines monitoring Mike’s vitals and the doctor’s shouts became muffled, far away compared with the loud, violent heartbeat filling my ears.

I didn’t want to leave Mike’s side, but I felt the panic rising, swallowing me, choking off my breath as more personnel rushed in, pushing me into a corner. The tall doctor turned toward me. “Does he have an advance directive?” he said, lowering his voice. “A DNR?”

DNR—do not resuscitate. “No! No DNR!” I shouted, the words catching in my throat. “Do anything to save him. Anything.”

I slipped out into the hallway and braced myself against the wall, gasping. Everything was spinning now, my heart about to explode. Only Mike could calm me down when I got like this. Only Mike had the strength, strength enough for both of us.

But now, suddenly, he was fighting for his life. I had never thought about life without Mike. It was impossible to imagine.

We were two peas in a pod. I guess that’s a folksy way of putting it. Inseparable. Everything we could do together we did together, ever since college. Walk the dogs. Push the shopping cart through the grocery aisles side by side. Work out at the gym on adjacent treadmills.

We had a “traditional” marriage—I cooked and did laundry, he took care of the bills and fixed things around the house. Mike was my anchor, the love of my life. And, I’m ready to admit now, my security blanket.

I guess another folksy way to describe me is a homebody. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a term that truly describes the crippling anxiety that can hit me when I leave my familiar surroundings. Panic attack comes closest.

My heart races, I grow dizzy and break out into a sweat. Many things can trigger it—a tight elevator space, an unfamiliar building, a congested highway. The only relief was retreating to the familiar. And Mike.

If Mike was with me I could ride out the attacks, even avoid them. I could be comfortable anywhere as long as he was there too. His was the one voice that could cut through the fear. He would take my hand and the panic would subside.

I could do something new as long as he was there to tell me everything was going to be all right. Now Mike was on a gurney surrounded by strangers trying to save his life.

Earlier that morning, we’d been in our living room, solving the daily crossword puzzle in the newspaper together like always, the dogs curled at our feet. We were the perfect team—I knew biology and literature, Mike got all the history and pop culture.

He started feeling sick. “Maybe it’s the flu,” I said.

Mike just shook his head. He was growing paler. He was 54. He’d had gastrointestinal surgery, but that was years ago. This must be something else.

Within the hour we were on our way to the ER, where things only got worse fast, and I found myself leaning against the wall feeling as if my world was about to collapse, that I was only a shell of a person without Mike.

They took Mike for a CAT scan. I moved from the hallway to the waiting area. I lost track of time until a doctor told me they’d discovered a blood clot in Mike’s lungs—potentially fatal. Internal bleeding—again, potentially fatal.

The cause was unknown, but once Mike was stable, he would undergo surgery. A nurse asked, “Is there anyone you need to call?” I nodded and phoned our kids, Andy and Kate.

Then I just curled up in a vinyl reclining chair in Mike’s darkened room in the ICU and stared at him. His face was still so pale, his stomach swollen from the internal bleeding. He was connected to a bank of machines and IVs, his vital signs blinking on the monitors.

All at once Mike called me over and took my hand in his. 

“God, be with us now, help me to get well,” he prayed with a labored voice. “Be with the doctors, give them wisdom.” He squeezed my hand tight, the way he always did when he knew I needed him. “Be with Peggy. Keep her calm as we’re going through this difficult time together, give her peace and strength.”

Peace and strength. Mike knew what I needed. He trusted God to help me. Could I find the strength to overcome this helpless sense of panic without Mike to hold me up? My mind seemed to be my worst enemy. I slid back into the recliner. As long as the staff would let me, I’d stay put right there.

Andy, Kate and our son-in-law, Aaron, arrived in the morning. “Mom, you look exhausted,” Kate said. “Let me take you home to get some rest.” My stomach rumbled. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast the previous day. Hadn’t even thought of eating. I could use a shower. But I couldn’t leave Mike.

“I can’t do it,” I said. “I can’t.”

“Yes, you can.” Kate put her arm around me. “You’re stronger than you think.” No, I was weak. But our dogs needed to be fed and they were probably worried sick without us. I’d never forgive myself for neglecting them.

So I walked shakily down six flights of stairs—I didn’t want to risk an attack in the elevator—to the parking lot. My throat tightened when I slid into Kate’s white Honda. I was used to our car, to Mike driving.

Back home I fed the dogs and gave them reassuring hugs and a few extra treats, but I couldn’t get myself to even go into the bedroom, terrified at the thought of sleeping there without Mike.

I sat in my armchair in the living room all night, trying not to look at the empty armchair beside me, jumping from every creak and groan of the house, a house that suddenly felt so unfamiliar. I wasn’t getting any sleep. This was more than a panic attack, I was having a panic existence.

Kate dropped me at the hospital in the morning. I willed myself up the six flights of stairs. Mike was no better. He groaned with pain. I fished the crossword puzzle out of my pocketbook. He wasn’t up for it. I put it back and curled up again in the recliner. Breathe, I told myself, just breathe.

The next day doctors discovered Mike had a perforated bowel. He was rushed into surgery. They drained four quarts of blood from his stomach and removed portions of his intestines.

The kids waited with me during surgery, but eventually I was alone again in Mike’s room, staring, just trying to breathe. Mike was sedated, on a respirator, a long tube down his throat, another in his nose. His hands were tied to the sides of the bed so he wouldn’t pull them out in his distressed state.

“Mike, can you hear me?” I whispered. No response. At least not from my husband. Inside me I experienced a deeper terror than I had ever known, as if fear had become the very essence of my existence, the most elemental component of my being.

I watched the lines on the heart monitor form peaks and valleys, filaments that connected Mike to life. A rolling landscape. An image filling my mind, something positive.

I thought of the mountains surrounding the camp Mike and I liked to visit in the Adirondacks. I thought about how connected we felt there, to each other and to God, a place where it felt as if my faith could breathe and fear could not follow.

I lift my eyes to the hills.... Those words came to my mind suddenly. My memory filled in the rest. I lift my eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my strength. Why should that verse strike me now, when I’d never felt weaker?

I’m not one who hears God talk to her, but I wish he did. I wished he’d say in a loud, clear voice, “Mike is going to be okay and so are you, Peggy.” But it was just that fragment of a verse, rising and falling with the monitor lines.

In truth, I knew God was the source of all strength. My faith told me that. Yet I’d always thought God had given me Mike for my strength. I turned to Mike when the panic struck, when the familiar turned unfamiliar. Wasn’t that what God wanted?

I lift my eyes to the hills....

Strength. It always seemed it was what I had least of when I needed it most. I needed Mike now because I needed his strength. Yet Mike needed his strength for himself. Mike needed strength from me. That was what was scaring me so much. Could I be strong for him? For myself?

I lift my eyes to the hills....

God was speaking directly to me, I just wasn’t listening! To him I could turn for all the strength I needed—that was the assurance he was giving me here in this dark, airless ICU. Not, Everything is going to be okay, Peggy, but With me you can do anything.

I felt something tight inside me slowly uncoil. “Lord,” I whispered, “what else can I do but trust you? I can do all things, because you strengthen me.”

For seven days, Mike remained sedated and on the respirator. For seven days I kept vigil. Every day I thought of that verse and felt a little more strength flowing through me. If I was getting stronger, so too must Mike.

Then one day he squeezed my hand. The next day, he traced out letters on my palm: T-H-I-R-S-T-Y. I got a wet sponge and rubbed it across his lips. I did that over and over again. Just a little thing like that was empowering. Trust. Act. Those were my watchwords.

When Mike ran a fever, I took over the nurse’s job dabbing a cool washcloth across his forehead. Later I brought him his favorite foods, his music player, the newspaper. The crossword! I recruited a friend from church to feed the dogs. Arranged transportation to and from the hospital.

I took on Mike’s responsibilities. Paid the bills, took out the trash. Each task made me feel bolder, stronger, more capable, in touch with my true source of strength. I lift my eyes to the hills....

And Mike slowly turned a corner. That’s when one of the younger nurses looked at me and said, “I don’t know what he would have done without you.”

After 32 days, Mike was ready to be discharged. He climbed out of a wheelchair in the hospital parking lot. I gave him my arm and felt his weight as I helped him to stand. We walked to the car, his body leaning against mine.

Mike would need months of physical therapy and home care, but he was going to make it. And so was I. Not without moments of fear, of doubt, of thinking in my old ways. Panic disorders are deeply rooted. If you’ve ever suffered a panic attack, you know what I am talking about.

Yet my husband’s terrifying health crisis became a source of courage for me. It turned my eyes to my one true source of strength, the most familiar source of all, where my faith can breathe and fear cannot follow.

Get tips on conquering anxiety from Norman Vincent Peale!

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