Six Months On (Episode 16) — The Great Escape (Part 1)

Remember when I woke up and said I thought Susan had a plan to get me out of there? Well here is why I said that. I seems that while I was sedated and yet still responsive I dreamed what you are about to read. Let me be clear. This was a dream. It happened only in my mind. What’s amazing about it is the clarity with which I remember it. Even now, six months later, it’s as vivid as it was when I dreamed it.

I include it here because it taught me a lot about trust. Trust in care providers, in friends and in family. For a month my life rested squarely in the hands of others and I’m writing about it today because of it.

I also include it because it introduces you to some of the real life people who kept me alive. Though their adventures here were not real, their efforts in the ICU for two weeks were very real. There were plenty of others as well but a man can only dream so much.

With that in mind I invite you jump on board, ignore a few plot holes and enjoy the ride. Remember, this is a dream. This is only a dream.

The Plan

The nightmare had passed. My biggest fear — not being able to breath — was over. The machine that had been serving as my lungs for the past 15 days was gone. I was still on some oxygen but I was getting stronger every day and would soon be breathing all on my own. I didn’t need to be in the ICU any longer but they weren’t letting me go. The doctors and nurses said that I wasn’t ready. They didn’t understand how strong I really was. It was time to get to the next phase and get on with my life. But how?

Since before they took me off the ventilator, Susan had been researching ways to help keep me calm and breathing during times of stress. Her 18 years of yoga practice had prepared her well when it came to breathing techniques, but she needed some help with managing my stress. If I panicked I would get short on breath. That would lead to more panic, more trouble breathing, etc. She enlisted my sister, Laura, in Colorado. Laura is an Occupational Therapist Assistant, a massage therapist and the all-around chillest person we knew. She had been looking into ways to help keep me calm through the use of audio therapy. We’re not talking about the sounds of the ocean or a crackling fire. She was going straight for the heart of relaxation with some sounds that she knew would put my soul at ease.

Susan had also been busy looking into options for getting me out of the ICU and into a regular room but ran into a few road blocks. Working at the hospital gave her access to many valuable resources in her research. She knew she would need some help from some higher-ups, so she called in a few favors. But it wasn’t enough. We needed the doctor’s approval that I could go and at this point the doctors were not willing to do it. Through her research she found a loophole that would allow a patient to be released from the ICU before the doctor deemed them ready, but the hospital would provide no transportation from the ICU to the hospital, which was in a separate building, on a different road, around a corner and down a hill. But that was just one of several obstacles.

Since it was winter, there was always the possibility of wintry weather, and around here the roads can turn bad quickly. Couple that with the steep hill that had to be driven down, and you’re looking at going from the ICU straight to the ER. Sure enough, icy weather was making its way into the area.

Then there was problem of the type of vehicle it would take to transport a patient who is still on some oxygen, an IV or two, and a couple of machines monitoring his vital signs. It needed to be an ambulance but insurance wouldn’t pay for it in this case since the doctors did not approve it. Paying full price for the ambulance ride was out of the question as well. This entire ordeal was costing enough already and that was with a pretty good insurance plan.

Susan was facing problems that would require some out of the box thinking in order to pull this off. But she was determined to make it happen, get me me well and ultimately get me home where we all belonged. My family was all in but she would need some inside help. So she recruited her A-Team and she pitied the fool who would stand in their way.

Transportation — A couple of the many nurses who had become such a big help to our family were Dale and Brian. They brought food, encouragement and great care to a bad situation from the beginning. They would often come to check on me (and the family) when they were assigned to other areas. They were also EMT’s and often drove an ambulance when they weren’t working at the hospital. They had access to an ambulance and were willing to devote their off-duty time to Susan’s cause. It was risky for their own careers but they were willing to help in anyway they could.

Medical care before and during the move — Being on oxygen during an unsanctioned move was going to be tricky. I would need a tank, a mask and possibly an oxygen treatment or two throughout the process. Susan found a willing accomplice in Fred Smith. Fred had been showing up in my room since I woke up inserting a small cannister into my oxygen line. The can would make a sound like sparkler on the 4th of July and steam would come up through my mask and into my lungs. It felt cold and refreshing but it also felt like I was getting a hit of something I shouldn’t. It felt wrong and I loved it. When he gave it to me he would call it a “Super Charged Oxygen Treatment.” Fred Smith wasn’t his real name but in my dazed state upon waking up I looked at his name badge, and Fred Smith was what my eyes read. He would be Fred Smith to me forever and always no matter what his real name was. Fred was willing to join the team but not because he believed in the cause. He wanted to make sure that his patient of the last 2 weeks had the proper respiratory care and didn’t die during this risky endeavor. That’s exactly what we needed in this case. Someone who only cared about the patient’s health.

Other logistics — The bed I had been in would not be making the trip so I would need to be carried out to the ambulance on a stretcher board that Dale and Brian had. There would also need to be some strong bodies to get me out of bed and onto the stretcher and then carry it once I was on it. Susan had just the trio for the job. My younger brother, Brian, my buddy, Tyrone, and another Tyrone who was the principal of the elementary school the girls went to when they were younger.

With the potential bad weather there were a few other things needed in case something went wrong, but she was crossing one bridge at a time when it came to these problems.

So this was the core team that would that would carry out the mission. Timing was critical since there were hospital employees involved and they would need to be off-duty to volunteer their time. Most of them worked the 8 a.m to 8 p.m. shift so it would need to happen at night. The shift change at 8 p.m. provided the perfect distraction to keep other employees busy and out of the way. Several had already heard rumors of a move but didn’t like people meddling in the life-saving work they did everyday. They would be more than happy to throw a wrench into the plans if given the opportunity. Susan had done everything in her power to convert some to the cause. This included getting my brother to “get friendly” with the charge nurse who was scheduled for that night. It was a dirty job but he wanted to do whatever he could to help his big brother. While she never did approve of the move, she did agree not to get in the way of it.

So preparations were made, schedules arranged and everyone was prepared when the appointed day arrived. My room had already been assigned to an incoming patient so Dale, Brian, Tyrone and Tyrone lifted me off the bed and onto the stretcher. They took me to a supply room near a loading dock where I would make my escape. There was a lot of coming and going in this room as employees came and went getting needed supplies. They set me down in the back of the room behind some boxes and next to the lifeless body of a full sized CPR manikin so that (hopefully) I would just look like another dummy on a stretcher waiting for the next CPR training.

Fred Smith proceeded to hook up my supplemental oxygen but soon realized that valve on the tank was stuck and would have to be replaced. This was a problem. I would have to go without the extra oxygen for longer than anticipated. This is where the collaboration between Susan and Laura needed to come through. Susan knew that I could get the oxygen I needed if I just relaxed and breathed properly. For years she had been telling me. “In through the nose, out through the mouth. Expand the diaphragm when you inhale. Fill those lungs.” It was as though she knew this moment would one day come and had been preparing me for it all along. It all came down to the execution. Would I be able to calm down enough to do what she had been telling me to do for all these years? My life literally depended on it.

The Big Chill

This is where Laura came in. Susan had given the recordings that Laura had put together to Dale to play from my old iPod. He plugged it into a small battery-powered speaker and hid them behind a box so that I wouldn’t know where the sounds were coming from. The idea was that in my dreamy state I would believe that the voices and sounds I was hearing were coming from either the real world or my dream world. Either way, they would hold my attention and keep me from thinking about the lowered (or non-existent) supplemental oxygen I was getting. All I had to do was breathe.

It started with ethereal music mixed with actual echoed recordings of conversations between mission control and apollo astronauts from the 60s and early 70s. (This is actually a real thing that I listen to at night sometimes. It’s very relaxing. Check it out at SomaFM.com.) As the sounds wove together I began to relax. Then an imperceptible sound flowed into the mix. This is where Laura was driving to the core. Off in the distance I could make out the sound of my 5-year-old nephew’s voice asking me how I’m doing and then telling me about his day. And I found my peace and became one with my own breath. I was nestled snugly in a cloud of sounds all hand picked by my sister, the Champion of Chill, in Denver, Colorado.

It worked. I was as relaxed as I’d ever been and could hear every breath I took. My breathing became the center of the universe and everything revolved around it.Less is more if done correctly. It was all a matter of intention and mindfulness. I was able to breathe like this for several hours, which is good because Fred Smith had gotten pulled away and was not able to return with a new oxygen tank until it nearly time for me to go.

As the time drew closer there was increased activity in my staging area. Some of it was the normal supply runs that hospital employees were making as part of everyday life in the ICU and some of it was for me. Since I was only finding out the plan as it unfolded I had no idea what preparations needed to be made. I only know that they were moving me and I would know the next step only when I needed to know. I had one job. Breathe.

Susan was nowhere to be found. I kept hoping she would show up and clue me in, but she didn’t. She had decided to orchestrate the plan from her office on the other side of the campus via texts and phone calls. When she did need to come over she faded into the shadows so as not to draw attention to herself. Her unmistakeable red hair hidden underneath a black hoodie. She was leaving nothing to chance.

As the sky turned darker the predicted winter weather began to move in. It was a light mix of freezing rain and sleet but in the mid-south that’s the worst combination. Accumulation was slow and due to the unseasonably mild winter we had been having the roads were not a problem. But as the temperature was falling, quickly things would soon turn ugly.

As staff members came in and out of the supply room I could vaguely make out pieces of conversations they were having, and I could tell they were upset about something. There was talk of interfering, but it was hard for me to make out any details. My mind began to race as I tried to think of what I should do. If a big enough of a stink was raised it could blow the whole thing. Worse than that, if word got out it could make the hospital look bad and potentially cost Susan her job. What should I do? What could I do? What would Susan need me to do?

Breathe. My one job. I didn’t need to alert anyone or try to convince anyone of anything. All I needed to do was breathe. She had been rehearsing my part with me for years. Breathe. Nothing more. So I closed my eyes and took a breath. Then another and another. And another. I returned to the calm that I had found before and waited for whatever was to happen next.

Little did I know that my calm would soon be shattered from an unexpected source and it threatened to blow the entire plan out of the water…

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Tim Van Dusen’s story.