My family, I reckon, are born fighters.
Between my immediate family between us we have survived pneumonia (repeatedly and in varying severity), multiple organ failure, sepsis, cardiac arrest and a stroke. The worst culprits are my father and my daughter.
Three years ago my father wound up in Intensive Care after taking a turn for the worst with what his GP thought was gastric flu. After progressively deteriorating, he was taken to our local hospital where they grew increasingly concerned. Gastric flu or not, they were concerned about his heart and decided to transfer him to a larger hospital with an outstanding surgical team. It happened very quickly; I was travelling down from university as fast as I could and throughout the few hours of my trip he was sedated to preserve his energy and I arrived just before the ambulance did, to transfer him to London up the motorway. We were prepped as to his immediate emergency surgery to repair his heart, which had been damaged by staphylococcus and not gastric flu at all, that was ulcerating and eating away at the muscle. There was a 33% chance of success, but without it, the doctor gave him 24-48 hours. That train journey my mum, sister and myself took was fraught. We were on a knife edge and raced to get to St Thomas' hospital. Once there, we discovered my father was not. We were distraught and immediately thought the worst. A phone call revealed a delay; the local hospital wanted to stabilise him before starting out to give him the best chance.
Finally he arrived and went straight to theatre. The surgery took 8 hours. My sister slept lightly, exhausted from the day. Me and my mum sat holding hands, bolt upright. Every noise, our heart jumped into our mouths, convinced it was for us. We could see surgeons going up and down a corridor and plumes of steam from the generator below, whispering up into the air. Several beds were wheeled past us but none with him in. Dawn began to break and finally someone came into the room, eight hours after the surgery had commenced. My mum went to speak with them, to hear the situation. The surgeons were breaking as had been working solidly for the eight hours but were happy with how things had gone and were about to close the wound. He would be in Intensive Care while she recovered and would remain sedated for a while to recover and be on strong IV antibiotics and receive other drugs and pain relief through these lines.
It was bizarre seeing my strong father 'asleep' and as weak as he was. As they had said, he was sedated and at first on quite a lot of support. The first few days were critical. After 24 hours, his major organs began to fail, especially his kidneys and dialysis was commenced. We were assured this was a side effect not that uncommon from major surgery and that as he was still septic from the bacteria, it was almost to be expected. Thankfully, he began to turn a corner after two weeks and slowly battle the support off. He regained consciousness, although very much slid in and out. He recognised us, but was convinced he was in Australia and hallucinated frequently from the drugs. He fought against all the help, and was determined to get out of there.
When he graduated to High Dependency, he had a view of Southwark Cathedral to help ground him and sung to a young nurse who shared his name, who, poor thing didn't know quite what to say. Slowly, he gained in strength over the coming weeks and finally was transferred to a cottage hospital near home where he used to go for long walks, leading the staff to think he was trying to escape. My dad was astonished and explained that he was terribly bored by hospital grounds and wanted to stretch his legs elsewhere. Whether he was fibbing was debatable!
Physically he made a near-full recovery although his peripheral vision has been impaired and his strength is not what it was. He is much slower and needs a stick to help get about. Other than that he still my dry-humoured sharp-witted and much-loved Dad and will cheerfully bear down on people booming "Do you want to see my scar?!"
In some ways this experience prepared me for both Neonatal and later Paediatric Intensive Care. I was familiar with many of the machines and some medical terminology, the shift patterns were the same and I knew to avoid hospital canteen food. However the difference was from seeing a full grown adult and a tiny baby. Not just any tiny baby: mine. However upsetting and horrible it was seeing my father so ill, it was far worse to see my daughter in that state. The bed dwarfed her and she was so pale and still, like a doll. The difference also was that I had seen her deteriorate before me and been present at the points of emergency and seen some of the intervention. Also, there is nothing like seeing your child ill and being so helpless. It is something that has haunted me since, and though now I have a much greater acceptance of this and living with the memories, it is something that I will always remember. We were very lucky in neonatal to have a relatively smooth journey with no transfers, dangerous infections or complications, and for that I am grateful. When she was in PICU at 6 months old (3 months corrected; she was a little dot) she has pneumonia, which had been brought on as a complication between a virus resembling croup. She struggled with feeding and then breathing and after being put in a head-box with over 15 litres of oxygen being given to her and it not helping, the decision was made to transfer her to intensive care. When they did, an x-ray following intubation revealed a collapsed lung. Throughout the following fortnight, the infection took hold and overpowered her. I have written about this here so I won't repeat too much. It was a dreadful time where no one really knew what would happen one day to the next. However, she overcame it and came home with me and now is a lovely almost-toddler full of beans!
I don't know how families survive; either for those affected or their relatives and parents. Adrenaline I think. You don't stop and think about the consequences for more than fleeting seconds or otherwise you would crumble. I was surprised at how much hope a person can carry; how much you will someone to get better. I am not a religious person at all, I do not have that kind of faith. But in trying times, you have absolute and implicit trust in medical services and your child/parent/friend/relative who needs everyone to rally round and believe in them.
What also helps is help from charities that can offer practical and emotional support. Unfortunately even in times of need, the world does not stop. Everyone else carries on around you, and it can mean the world for people to step in and help. What also can mean the world is when people know when to back off. When you are in an actuely distressing experience, there is a fine line between what and with whom, you can cope with. Personally I found that whilst the closest people with me were my rocks, I simply was unable to deal with other people. I appreciated they were concerned too, but when you are in that position, you have to look after the person who needs you and yourself.
One charity that helps families to get through experiences that may be quite long term are CLIC Sargent who are launching the Do Something Yummy campaign. Do you love organising things, baking, selling? Well what are you waiting for!