by Michael Shields

“What is it?” I asked to her voice trembling on the other end of the phone.

“It’s dad,” my mother managed. Little else needed to be said, and I would be damned if I’d make her relive what had just occurred.

“I’m on my way,” I spat with conviction; cloaking deranged terror with reassuring bravado. I would learn moments later on a phone call with my brother that my father had fallen while jogging. His second serious heart attack in nearly as many months. This one would have stole him if not for unfathomable luck in the form of a passerbyer with a defibrillator. What are the odds? But the situation was dire. “Prepare yourself for the worst,” I was told. As if one ever could.

I was debriefed of my father’s condition en route from Brooklyn to Massachusetts. It was explained to me in amateurish detail the condition he was to be found in. I was told of the multitude of tubes encompassing his body, providing for the maintenance of all his vital functions. I was notified of the gash on his head from where he fell, and of his knee that withstood the first impact of the plunge. “He’s on full life support Mike, in a coma,” they warned. “They froze him, you’ll see, they say it’s good for his brain,” I was cautioned. He’ll be fine, I told myself as I leaned my foot onto the gas pedal, steaming up Interstate 95. What type of cop would ticket a distressed son competing with time for his father’s last breaths, I wondered. I leaned my foot onto the pedal a little harder.

They came in droves. A large Irish, Catholic family. Ten siblings on my mother’s side alone. All accounted for. All there to show love and support.

“He looks just like dad did,” my father’s sister said, referring to my grandfather’s final days. “How are the Yankees going to be this year?” one cousin asked me, a question that received as scant a response as it deserved. “I think you should know that there could be severe brain damage Mike, or even worse,” one of my uncles told me, a doctor who has seen it all. “Dad’s waking up,” I responded, “and he’ll be ok.” “I’m sure he will,” he said in retreat, his eyes betraying the measure of contrived hope.

I stayed with him alone through the late hours of the second night, sending the rest of my resistant yet weary immediately family members home. “You guys need rest,” I demanded. “He will need you when he wakes,” I begged my mother. “But what about you?” they asked. “I’m used to late nights,” I quipped. “You know me.” As the room hollowed out of distractions and support, I was left alone with the whisssp-classp of the breathing machine keeping my father viable. I was given the headspace to obsessively consider the full-body glove pumping frigid air about my father’s timeworn frame and to take in his fragile physique, a man I once presumed unbreakable. Left with him under my care, my words were the sole stimulus and incentive around. “You’re going to get through this, Dad.” “I love you Dad.” “I’m sorry Dad.”

A sharp beeeeep pierced the silence in between the mechanized oxygen huffs, a startling respite from superfluous introspection and brooding. A night-nurse casually danced in like a bar-back and began to take stock of the inventory of inverted bottles and baggies hanging like shirts haloing my father. Replacing the culprit, she turned to me with a heartening simper. “It’s the Michael Jackson drug,” she said, referring to Propofol. She was meaning to make me smile. She had been working tirelessly all night, checking vitals and refilling readily-consumed medicinal fluids flowing freely into my father. I gave her a warm smile as she left. The clock read four am. I squeezed my father’s hand. It was ice cold. Lifeless.

I wasn’t there when he woke, one of the few instances I wasn’t bedside during my father’s forty-eight hour coma. When I did arrive, he was sitting up. Besides the obvious fatigue and barefaced shellshock demeanor, he was Dad, cheesy jokes and all. In no time at all we set about the predictable way in which families cloak trauma, guilelessly laughing it away. “You see the lengths I have to go to to get all you kids in the room at once,” he taunted, dismissing the fact that when he was found there wasn’t even a trace of a heartbeat, and his breathing had ceased entirely. But here he was. I knew so much had changed, but you can never know exactly what in the moment. I was just happy. Grateful. Relieved in a way I had never known. But something was different in me, far beyond the inability to ever take the presence of my father for granted ever again. I had changed.

I was in a hotel room in Maryland when it first happened. Columbia, all office parks and strip malls. Too prearranged for my liking. Not a lick of improvisation in the arrangement. An imperfect local for my first heart attack I concluded. The hour was late; my friend lay asleep in the bed adjacent to mine while panic consumed me. My heart was thumping like a kick drum, my breathing challenged. I felt consciousness escaping my grip. I fought to stay awake, rubbing water into my face at steady intervals. I woke my friend in a huff. “I think there’s something wrong with me,” I said. He sat up, kicked his feet over the side of the bed while rubbing his eyes, confounded by this ordinarily cool customer now siphoning exaggerated breaths and pacing the room. I grew bashful, more ashamed than concerned. “Wait, I’m fine, man. I’m sorry. Get some rest. I was just buggin’, thinking about something. Allgood.” All wasn’t good for another few hours when the feeling subsided, my heart rate finally returning to normal.

The second time it happened I was in Cape Cod on vacation, about to walk to the beach. As stress free a moment as conceivable. Crisp ocean air and the sand beneath my toes would have to wait, as a few hours of unhinged trepidation was apparently what what the moment called for. The third event, as I was beginning to term the happenings, occurred at my home in Brooklyn. This one was a doozy, a mid-day walloping that had me convinced the end was nigh. My chest ached and it throbbed. I felt dizzy and swore I detected an ache in my left arm. I was sweating and the room felt tropical, thick and moist. I hit the streets for some fresh air. My phone in my hand as I walked, a 9 and a 1 already pre-dialed with my fore-finger hovering over another 1, ready. I was overheating and flush in the face. I was wearing a light jacket and athletic shorts. It was eighteen degrees out. It was time to consult with the professionals.

The thing that bothered me about giving myself over to the medical community in this case was I understood the absurdity. I was three years shy of forty at the time; the frequency in which I exercised would be considered fanatical by some, and my weekend shenanigans – while still ongoing – had downsized in intensity and frequency to a level I am probably far too comfortable with. But the doctors, bless them, heard me out. And by the end of the first visit I had laid all the cards on the table confessing, “Recently my dad had a heart attack. A bad one.”

“Ah, I see,” the doctor said with a settled understanding, as the puzzle pieces began to finally fit together. We did speak about the possibility of this all being mental, but I wanted to be sure. And so we ran all the tests, and I even submitted myself to a full stress test with a cardiologist. There was also a heart sonogram, the brand they implore for pregnancies where my heart was visually and meticulously analyzed. We went all in. What I felt was that real. It was terrifying. But when all the results came in, I was granted with a clean bill of health.

“You’re cool,” the cardiologist said to me, a man so taut the word “cool” rolled off his tongue like cement.

“Cool?” I asked, confounded by so rustic of a diagnosis.

“Beyond cool,” he added with a smile I interpreted as mocking.

I have taken the time to inform myself and talk to people about anxiety and panic attacks, and there’s no doubt my symptoms align. I am not sure the connection between those instances where I lost control and my reckoning with what occurred with my father, but I’m cognizant of the relationship. The room, the ICU, the whisssp-classp, my father’s cold hands and the tubes, they still linger with me in a way I have yet to fully understand. And I know now that I am vulnerable to something I wasn’t before, a force so overwhelming it drove me to a level of fear I wasn’t familiar with. But this demon that bubbled to the surface, this newfound chink of the armor, doesn’t bother me so much in hindsight. It’s part of me, this imperfection. Whatever it was, it wasn’t something that just occurred, but a part of my being. Something from within. That’s ok I think.

“Beyond cool.” Those words I think of often, pouring out the doctor’s mouth as if he had just cured the world of all its ills. Thanks doc. Now, define cool…


Michael Shields is a writer who resides in Brooklyn, New York. He is the Founder and Chief Editor of Across the Margin, a home for writers and wordsmiths who revere honesty and idolize wordplay.

Visit Michael at his magazine,

2 thoughts on “ICU”

  1. There are, perhaps, few things that can make us more consciously, and unconsciously, aware of our fundamental vulnerability than seeing a loved one in the kind of weakness and danger you saw in that ICU. For my part, I spent seven of the past ten years with my father as he slowly disappeared into dementia, what Nancy Reagan called, the long goodby. Now, I worry a bit when I have trouble remembering a name or some such, but fortunately, not to the point of panic attack. Still, the fear is real. Thank you Michael. reblogging


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