The Lifeline

The Lifeline

From Chicken Soup for the Nurse's Soul Second Dose

The Lifeline

Words have a longer life than deeds.


Michelle baffled the doctors. Her symptoms were vague and subjective—weakness, fatigue, tingling, dizziness. They could indicate any number of disease processes. Or none. “Most likely it’s psychosomatic,” her internist said, but he admitted her to the hospital for tests and observation anyway.

Michelle had been raped a year earlier and had just found out she would soon have to testify in her rapist’s trial. That’s when the symptoms had begun. After her tests came back negative, her doctor prepared to discharge her from the hospital.

Then Michelle stopped breathing.

The resuscitation team intubated the young woman and rushed her to intensive care. Her limbs lay limp and useless on the bed. She was dependent on the ventilator to fill her lungs with life-sustaining oxygen. At first, Michelle was able to nod and shake her head when the nurses asked her questions. By the time I was assigned to care for her, she could only blink her eyes—twice for yes, once for no.

“It could be Reye’s syndrome,” conjectured her neurologist, but at twenty-six, Michelle was well beyond the usual age range for that malady. More than once, the doctors rejected a diagnosis of Guillain-Barré syndrome, but when further tests proved inconclusive, they finally settled on that diagnosis. The pulmonary doctor inserted a tracheostomy tube. Michelle would be on the ventilator for a long time.

I worked as a straight 11–7 nurse, and our shift was usually quiet. This gave me extra time to spend with Michelle, and we quickly developed our routine. Each night I asked, “Would you like me to swab your mouth?” Blink, blink. “Do you want an extra pillow under your head?” Blink. “Would you like to turn on your side?” Blink, blink. As I washed her face or combed her hair, I told Michelle about the weather outside her windowless room or gave updates on the antics of my new puppy. Without a word on her part, we formed a bond, Michelle and I.

All too soon came the terrible night when the blinking stopped. “She can’t move her eyes at all,” the evening nurse said. “I’m afraid we’re losing her.”

After report, I inserted drops and taped her eyelids shut to protect her precious corneas. Michelle was now completely trapped inside a body that would not respond to the simplest command. Her lifeline was gone.

Days stretched into weeks, and Michelle’s condition remained the same. I talked to her in hopes that she could still hear me and performed range of motion exercises to keep her joints from stiffening into permanent contractures.

In December, Michelle’s parents decorated her room in a festive atmosphere, and we allowed them to stay beyond regular visiting hours to celebrate with her. Christmas came and went. Still no response.

After the holidays, Michelle developed a urinary tract infection and pneumonia. We battled all the familiar foes that attack a comatose patient, even one as young as Michelle. Once her body overcame the infections, her heart rate began to soar, and she perspired profusely. I had seen those same signs in patients with severe brain damage.

“I don’t think she’ll ever wake up,” I quietly confessed to another nurse during shift change one morning. “It’s been eleven weeks now.”

“I know,” she replied. “I’ve never seen a patient stay in ICU so long.”

That morning I left with a heavy heart. The thought that Michelle would not recover and the fact that she was so near my age haunted me. Even the prospect of a two-week vacation did nothing to cheer me as images of Michelle’s taped eyes and motionless body flickered across my mind.

When I returned from my much-needed break, things were hopping in my assigned unit. Lisa, the 3–11 nurse, was snowed under with two patients in crisis at once, so I pitched in and began taking vital signs and doing neuro checks. As I sat at the desk completing my nurse’s notes on one patient, I heard a gravelly voice call, “Tracy?”

“What?” I asked, still busy charting.

“Tracy?” the voice called again. It sounded as if it came from the hall outside our unit. Someone must be playing a trick on me, I thought. I don’t have time for games.

“What is it?” I asked, a bit more irritated this time, and stepped into the hall.

“Tracy!” That’s when I realized the disembodied voice came from Michelle’s room. I ran to her side.

“You’re awake!” I cried, always the perceptive one.

Michelle smiled. “They took my trach out today. The doctor said I probably wouldn’t be able to talk for a while, but I needed help. Could you please turn me on my side?”

“Sure thing,” I said and moved her emaciated body, tucking pillows behind her back. “But how did you know I was here?”

“Lisa told me you were coming on,” Michelle replied, “and I heard you talking to the patient in the next room. I remembered your voice.”

Though she did not remember much from the weeks she was paralyzed, Michelle remembered my voice. When her body forsook her and she was unable even to blink an eye, I thought her lifeline was gone. But Michelle latched on to the thread that had formed between us, a thread that became stronger the more I talked to her.

Michelle recovered over the next few weeks, slowly regaining use of her long-forgotten muscles. Eventually, she resumed a normal life.

My transformation took place more quickly as I realized the power of the spoken word and the lifeline those words can create.

Tracy Crump

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