20 Hours in ICU

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Where did we leave off? Oh yes. It was 1:20 PM on September 15th. I’d just been taken out of a 5.5 hour surgery and was being wheeled to ICU and gave my husband a thumbs up. Now, I was only in the ICU for a short period of time but it was…very memorable. It was definitely a sensory overload and I could not wait to get out of there.

What ICU was like:

I recall things being blurry in the distance. Later I’d learn my eyes weren’t able to adjust because of the Oxicodone. However, I was alert and responsive. My ICU nurse came in and took my vitals every hour on the hour.

I was thoroughly strapped into the matrix:

  • Oxygen monitor taped to my finger
  • Blood pressure cuff stayed wrapped around my arm
  • Urinary catheter, with tubes adhered to my left thigh
  • Nasal cannula for oxygen, wrapping over my ears
  • Powered air compression sleeves wrapping my calves
  • 3 IV ports on my forearms
    • 1 for a sodium phosphate drip (liver food)
    • 1 for self-administering my meds
    • 1 for blood draws
  • 6 or so EKG pads around my abdomen, with all the cords bundling over my right shoulder

I’ll say this. By the time I left ICU, I was beginning to feel a little claustrophobic. I was wrapped in all the equipment. The noises of the various machines were getting to me.

What was the pain like?

Ever get big gas bubbles trapped up high in your stomach? It hurt like that. Because it WAS that. Apparently, pumping air into your abdomen helps them navigate around when they’re inspecting your organs and preparing to cut part of your liver out. So yes, I literally had big gas bubbles trapped up in my rib cage.

That is what I felt most. And what hurt the most. Not the incision (those nerves were dead). Not some inner awareness that a piece of my living was missing (no nerve endings in there anyway). No. It was gas pains like crazy. And a surprising pain in the inner aspect of my right elbow – so much so that I didn’t want to bend or lift my arm. Weird. Maybe it had been laying funny during surgery? Don’t know.

A heat pack helped with the gas pain. I was able to push my drug button every 15 minutes or so. Which I did at first. Then slowly started waiting longer and longer. I remembered that the anesthesiologist told me not to be a hero and wait too long. But my donor mentor had also said he’d not needed as many pain killers as they were willing to give. And getting off the pain killers speeds recovery as it feeling the various twinges or aches helps you stay in tune with your abilities/limits.

You can see the square line from the surgery drape, the wrinkled skin that was stretched, and maybe even some clamp marks near my sternum.

Was I able to rest?

No, not really. ICU isn’t a place of rest. It’s a place of vigilance. Which is where the medical team needs you to be in those critical first hours when they’d have to catch any potential big problems.

Between vitals begin taken every hour, blood draws every 4 hours, and doctors visiting me, I was in and out. Sometimes when I was nearly asleep, I’d hear my oxygen monitor beeping because I hadn’t taken a breath in maybe a bit too long? Then I’d wonder if that meant something was wrong with me so I’d rouse myself to breath deeply.

ICU Visitors

Visitors are allowed but they have to come in one at a time. My husband was able to see me around 2:30 pm; about an hour after I got there. My adoptive mom came in later.

I remember when Dr. Roberts, my cousin’s surgeon, came in. My first thought was, “Randy is done already?!” Dr. Roberts said that his new liver was already starting to work. He said they usually have to do some things to the liver to make sure it fits in the recipient, but barely had to do anything with mine. It was a perfect fit!

There were other surgeons, specialists and an anesthesiologist who came to check up on me. Everyone remarked on how alert and positive I was.

I might have felt a bit like a celebrity with all the attention I got from many people on the transplant team. Always asking how I felt and if I needed anything. However, they are the real heroes. They’ve dedicated more time and talent than I can imagine in order to be able to keep me alive and healthy while extracting a huge chunk of a vital organ. They sacrifice a lot to do the work they do and the work they do saves lives.

The Morning After

So that is how I stayed the night in ICU. The next morning, I was assisted out of my bed and into a chair. Then they asked if I wanted to try getting up. I was nervous. It felt fast. But my running mentality kicked in and I said to myself, “Okay. Sure. Why not?”

See, I’m not a fast or competitive runner. I started by taking lots of walk breaks and really struggled to push past the point where my brain would scream, “Why are you running?! You’re going to die! STOP NOW!” But I learned to push past that by reminding myself that not all pain and discomfort is fatal, let alone dangerous. I could keep running and just accept the fact that it didn’t feel easy or comfortable. So when my walk interval was over and I had to run again, or when I came to a hill, or when I was in that final stretch before the finish line, I’d say to myself, “Okay. Sure. Why not?” And then just go.

So that’s what I did. Right out of ICU.